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'Atomic veterans' battle with Congress for benefits

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Military service members who took part in the country's nuclear testing program are on the verge of losing critical federal benefits. These so-called atomic veterans are part of a larger group of Americans now battling Congress. They want lawmakers to reauthorize the 34-year-old Radiation Exposure Compensation Act before it expires next month. NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: In the spring of 1947, Navy sailor Lincoln Grahlfs went to an Oakland, Calif., hospital suffering from a high fever and a strange abscess. A doctor responded with an unorthodox treatment - X-rays to his face.

LINCOLN GRAHLFS: He said, we call that a hair of the dog that bit you.

GRISALES: That hair of the dog that bit Grahlfs was his exposure to the U.S. nuclear testing program during military exercises in the Pacific. Over the next seven decades, more mysterious illnesses followed.

GRAHLFS: I am affected by this thing, as far as I'm concerned, lifetime because it's in my blood.

GRISALES: But in some ways, Grahlfs is one of the lucky ones. At 101 years old, he is the country's oldest known atomic veteran. Now he's part of a group fighting for a critical lifeline known as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, set to expire next month. Here's Keith Kiefer, head of the National Association of Atomic Veterans.

KEITH KIEFER: Often, RECA is the difference for these veterans between becoming bankrupt or becoming homeless. So it's - you know, it's a godsend.

GRISALES: Since 1990, RECA has provided lump sum payments of up to $75,000 to atomic veterans and others sickened by nuclear test. The Oscar-winning film of the year, "Oppenheimer," spotlighted the Manhattan Project in the atomic bomb's earliest days.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OPPENHEIMER")

KENNETH BRANAGH: (As Niels Bohr) You are the man who gave them the power to destroy themselves. And the world is not prepared.

GRISALES: But a key group of lawmakers say the film's attention may not be enough. On Capitol Hill, Missouri Republican senator Josh Hawley warns Congress has just one month before RECA goes dark. The Senate has approved multiple bills to reauthorize and expand the program, but it remains stalled in the House, where cost is a concern. Here's Hawley on his way to Senate votes on a recent morning, describing this as the message such a failure would send.

JOSH HAWLEY: No, we think that you should get nothing despite the fact your government poisoned you. I say that's a pretty hard message to deliver.

GRISALES: For now, Hawley is betting how Speaker Mike Johnson will not deliver that message during an election year.

HAWLEY: Thousands of Americans will lose the lifesaving - literally lifesaving help that they've come to depend on. And people in my state - victims in my state, New Mexico, other states will get nothing.

GRISALES: New Mexico Democratic senator Ben Ray Lujan knows that all too well. Every year for 17 years, Lujan has filed legislation to boost the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

BEN RAY LUJAN: We need to pass this. This injustice is far too long. It's decades and decades old. This is not a blue state or red state issue. This is an American issue.

GRISALES: Grahlfs says regardless of the program's fate, the struggles remain.

GRAHLFS: Whether they sunset the act or not, people who have been affected by radiation are still affected.

GRISALES: Next week the atomic veterans will join other survivors on Capitol Hill to personally pressure Congress to approve the plan that recognizes their sacrifices for their country. Claudia Grisales, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.