Abandoned by US Government, Irradiated Servicemembers Turn to Japan for Help

It was a rescue mission, but one that years later turned the tables on victim and rescuer. Abandoned by their own government, American servicemembers who came to the aid of Japanese disaster victims will now benefit from a fund set up for them by a former prime minister.

Following a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011 in Japan, it quickly became clear the rescue work needed far outstripped the capabilities of Japan’s Self Defense Forces. The tsunami, whose waves reached heights of 130 feet, crippled the Fukushima nuclear plant, shutting down its cooling system and causing a nuclear meltdown that devastated the immediate area and at one point threatened to send a radioactive cloud over much of the nation.

Operation Tomadachi

The United States quickly dispatched an entire aircraft carrier group, centered on the USS Ronald Reagan, some 25 ships, for what came to be known as Operation Tomadachi (Friend). The U.S. provided search and rescue, and medical aid. Thousands of American military personnel assisted Japanese people in desperate need.

But it did not take long before the problems started.

The Aftermath

Military personnel soon began showing signs of radiation poisoning, including symptoms rare in young men and women: rectal bleeding, thyroid problems, tumors, and gynecological bleeding. Within three years of the disaster, young sailors began coming down with leukemia, and testicular and brain cancers. Hundreds of US military personnel who responded to Fukushima reported health problems related to radiation.

Some of those affected had worked in the area of the nuclear disaster, some had flown over it, many had been aboard ships that drew water out of the contaminated ocean to desalinate for drinking. All personnel were denied any special compensation by the US government, who referred back to Japanese authorities’ reports of relatively low levels of radiation, and to the military’s own protective efforts.

In a final report to Congress, the Department of Defense claimed personnel were exposed to less radiation than a person would receive during an airplane flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo. The Defense Department stated due to the low levels of radiation “there is no need for a long-term medical surveillance program.”

However, five years after the disaster and more than a year after its final report, a Navy spokesperson admitted that 16 US ships from the relief effort remain contaminated. However, the Navy continued, “the low levels of radioactivity that remain are in normally inaccessible areas that are controlled in accordance with stringent procedures.”

Other Parts of the US Government Reacted Very Differently to the Threat

On March 16, five days after the meltdown, the State Department authorized the voluntary departure from Japan of eligible family members of government personnel assigned to the US Embassy in Tokyo and other State Department facilities.

Ten days later, the US military moved over 7,000 military family members out of Japan under what was also called a “voluntary departure.” The effort, codenamed Operation Pacific Passage, also relocated close to 400 military pets.

And around the same time, the American Embassy repeated a Japanese government warning to parents about radioactive iodine being detected in the Tokyo drinking water supply. Tokyo is about 150 miles away from the Fukushima disaster site.

US Servicemembers Sue the Nuclear Plant Owner

After receiving no help from their own government, in 2013 a group of US servicemembers (now numbering 400; seven others have died while the lawsuit winds its way through the courts) filed a lawsuit against the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO, the owner of the nuclear plant) seeking more than two billion dollars.

The suit contends TEPCO lied about the threat to those helping out after the nuclear disaster, withholding some information and downplaying the dangers. The suit requests $40 million in compensatory and punitive damages for each plaintiff. It also requests a fund for health monitoring and medical expenses of one billion dollars.

It is unclear when the lawsuit will reach a decision point, one which, if it implicates TEPCO, will then begin another long legal journey through the appeals process. A resolution will take years.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi Steps Up

However, while the US government seemingly abandoned its servicemembers, and TEPCO hides behind lawyers, one unlikely person has stepped up to offer at least some monetary help with victims’ medical bills: former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Koizumi left office five years before the Fukushima disaster, but has what many feel is a sense of national guilt over how the Americans were treated. In May 2016, Koizumi broke down in tears as he made an emotional plea of support for US Navy sailors beset by health problems, saying “US military personnel who did their utmost in providing relief are now suffering from serious illnesses. We cannot ignore the situation.”

The former prime minister had become a vocal opponent of nuclear energy after the Fukushima meltdown. He responded to a request from a group supporting the TEPCO lawsuit plaintiffs and flew to the United States to meet with the veterans.

Then, just this week, on September 8, Koizumi told reporters he has set up a special fund to collect private donations for the former service members, with the goal of collecting one million dollars. Koizumi has already raised $400,000 through lecture fees.

“I felt I had to do something to help those who worked so hard for Japan,” he said. “Maybe this isn’t enough, but it will express our gratitude, that Japan is thankful.”

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.

  • You should never become a “service member”.

    • John_Smith001

      Yes, even when you get a nice posting like Japan you could end up getting screwed over by your government.

  • tman2000

    I was at Yokota AB, and I had friends who were Herk maintainers during the rescue mission. The guys working on the planes got severe nosebleeds, and CBRNE engineers came out in space suits to check the plane’s radiation levels and said it was very irradiated but commanders said to keep working. Don’t know the reason, maybe face saving for a lying Japanese government.

    • Becky Strohl

      The Japanese government is lying for their true owners who have ALL OF US by the nads! If you think Japan is the only “lying” government then you’re in for a very, VERY rude awakening soon.

  • lemur

    Getting seriously dusted:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1jqMZC2M-w

    Note that the coloring is logarithmic, so millions DON’T die from anything but old age, but if the wind had been different it would have been really, really bad. Dodged a bullet here. This is why nukes should be on floating platforms. Any problem, just drop the core into the sea.

    Back then the Reagan seems to have been parked in harm’s way:

    http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-carrier-reagan-pilots-deliver-aid-japan-2011mar13-htmlstory.html

  • kevin d blanch

    THE WHEELS OF INJUSTICE,

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  • IWASBS

    It is tomodachi (友達), not tomadachi.

  • BrotherJonah

    I’m going to bring up the case of my cousin Hank, as in Sgt T Hank Brown, copped DU poisoning definitely on the Saudi-Iraqi border 26 years ago. Thirteen years ago he was wasting away and some military doctor said it was “lifestyle” as in he smoked a lot of pot. He’s 6′ 4″ and weighed less than a hundred pounds. They still officially insist that no DU poisoning actually occurred. For ANYBODY. When I first came to Colorado during that time, I struck up a conversation with a soldier from the Fart Cartoon, Ft Carson. I mentioned Hank’s predicament, the treatment used to treat his “non-existent” DU poisoning was in fact the exact treatment used for DU and other heavy metals. And that the commandant at Ft Carson had completely stonewalled any queries about DU and mercury (just as deadly even without the hard radiation) by stating that the soldiers training for fighting the “war on terror” had to use the same ammo configuration they would be using in Iraq. That and we shouldn’t bother them about our families and pets succumbing to ailments which could easily diagnosed as Heavy Metal. Told us to flick off in fact.

    I asked if it was true the Army tested every one of the soldiers every other week (what the information specialists told us) and he replied that it was twice a week for his specialty.

    Hank is doing well now. Still has occasional complications. If the VA hadn’t intervened when they did, I’d be going to his grave on memorial events. It’s exactly what it is.

    The Army still contests every claim and for Agent Orange. If you come in with both legs traumatically amputated , (torn off, usually involving explosives) they would accuse you of faking it. That, too, is exactly what it is.