Atomic Veterans Advocate Acie Byrd Dies

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June 14, 2014; Washington Post

Last month, Acie L. Byrd died. Inexplicably, the Washington Post printed an obit about Byrd a full month later, missing earlier notices about Byrd by OpEd News, Democracy Now!, and Black Voice News.

Byrd was a disabled Navy veteran. In the Navy in 1958, he was assigned to an atoll in the Marshall Islands with the job of retrieving equipment and supplies after nuclear bomb tests. Over some time, the U.S. military detonated 14 megatons of nuclear weapons on the Enewetak atoll. Eventually, the government came to recognize that aboveground nuclear testing had devastating health impacts on people who might have been exposed even minimally to the radiation released by the detonations. It led to the test-ban treaty, but it was too late for Byrd, who among other veterans suffered from a variety of health issues related to the nuclear radiation, including prostate cancer first diagnosed when he was in his 30s, the illness he died of last month in a hospice in Arlington, Virginia.

One of many veterans whose radiation-related illnesses were little recognized by the U.S. government, Byrd joined the National Association of Atomic Veterans and later co-founded the International Alliance of Atomic Veterans. Byrd was one of the increasingly rare species of nonprofit activists—an advocate, and a good one. His work contributed to the passage of the Atomic Veterans Relief Act of 1986, formally titled the Veterans Dioxin and Radiation Exposure Compensation Standards Act, which provided compensation to veterans (and their survivors) who developed health problems that might be due to exposure to atmospheric nuclear bomb tests or nuclear radiation from their World War II assignments in Hiroshima or Nagasaki or, more recently, exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Byrd is an example of the positive impacts of advocacy. Not only did he become and active and influential advocate on behalf of American’s “atomic veterans,” he became actively involved in civil rights causes, the abolition of the death penalty, and not surprisingly, a ban on nuclear weapons. The few published obits take note of Byrd’s role in the Pacifica radio network as one of the founding members of the Washington-based WPFW and serving on the Pacifica national board.

Byrd wasn’t hugely famous; he simply did the work of a movement advocate, organizing marches and conferences here and around the world on nuclear disarmament, world peace, and civil rights. But his work on behalf of atomic veterans is most significant. We’ve seen numbers of some 250,000 to 300,000 U.S. military veterans who had been exposed to radiation from the detonation of American atomic and hydrogen bombs. Add these veterans to the people who were revealed to have been the test subjects of government-funded human radiation experiments from the 1940s into the 1960s. Assigned to retrieve test instruments after nuclear tests, working with irradiated test animals, and functioning near “ground zero” locations, Byrd and the others are another category of Americans whose assent was never asked as to whether they were willing to be nuclear test subjects.

The reason for the creation of NAAV, and then the International Alliance, was in part the secrecy of the military regarding the effects of the nuclear tests, probably in part due to the impact that transparent information would have had on public concerns about hundreds or even thousands of nuclear tests. Our guess is that the military might have also been concerned about suits that might have been filed by veterans who unknowingly signed on for tours as nuclear guinea pigs.

In an example of the odd ironies of history, not long after Acie Byrd died, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) introduced the Atomic Veterans Service Medal Act, which would create a new military service medal for members of the U.S. military who were “exposed to ionizing radiation as a result of participation in the testing of nuclear weapons or under other circumstances.” Acie Byrd probably wouldn’t have claimed individual credit for the 1986 legislation that provided VA assistance for radiation-related illnesses, nor the pending 2014 legislation for the military service medal. But he deserves a lion’s share of credit as an example of a nonprofit activist and advocate.

We need more people like Acie Byrd in the nonprofit sector.—Rick Cohen