The only protective gear Paul Laird wore when the U.S. Army sent him to help scrub a remote South Pacific atoll of nuclear waste was a T-shirt he wrapped around his head.
Laird was 20, and one of thousands of soldiers sent in the late 1970s to help remediate damage to the Marshall Islands property from nuclear testing a generation earlier. Now he, and hundreds of others, have cancer that they trace to their non-wartime service.
"I begged the first two weeks I was there for a dust mask," Laird, 59, of Otisfield, Maine, told FoxNews.com. "I took my T-shirt off and wrapped it around my head to get a little bit of protection."
"I begged the first two weeks I was there for a dust mask."
- Paul Laird
Laird, a three-time cancer survivor, is among a growing number of veterans fighting for a bill that would create a special "atomic veteran" designation for the service members who worked to clean up the Enewetak Atoll.
The Marshall Islands were the site of 43 nuclear weapons tests conducted by the U.S. government from 1948 to 1958 -- and Laird was one of 6,000 American soldiers responsible for cleaning up radioactive debris from the Enewetak Atoll years later, before it could be returned to the native inhabitants.
Laird and the surviving "Enewetak Atomic Cleanup Veterans" -- many of whom have cancer and other ailments -- want to be compensated for medical expenses due to ionized radiation exposure they say caused their conditions. But they are not included in the federal government’s definition of “atomic veteran,” which covers people in the U.S. and abroad who were directly exposed to nuclear testing and provides a higher level of service and care by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"They’re trying to say we were well protected," said Laird, who has surivived three different types of cancer since his six-month stint on the Marshall Islands in 1977, moving radioactive soil that was "like baby powder" and showering in contaminated water.
Federal law must be changed before the veterans can get the recognition and care they claim is service-related.
"The VA is only doing what they’re allowed to do," Laird said. "When they deny us, they are legal in doing so."
"Until Congress changes that law and includes us in that status, we will not be covered," he said.
In November, U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, D-Hawaii, introduced The Atomic Veterans Health Care Parity Act, or H.R. 3870 that, if passed, would include the group as "atomic veterans." The bill was referred to the House subcommittee on health on Nov. 6 and has since stalled, according to Laird and others.
"This is a one-sentence bill," said Gary Pulis, who arrived on the island of Lojwa in the Enewetak Atoll of the Marshall Islands in 1979 as a 19-year-old volunteer member of the U.S. Army.
"It says it will add the Enewetak Atoll cleanup veterans to the definition of 'atomic veteran,'" he told FoxNews.com.
"That will untie the VA’s hands and allow them to treat us as atomic veterans. Right now, if we put in a claim, we have to prove to the VA the level of radiation we were exposed to," said Pulis, a 56-year-old bus driver from Auburn, Ind., who claims he inexplicably lost 43 percent of his lung function and suffers from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease as a result of his time spent in the Marshall Islands.
To Pulis -- who also has lesions covering his body -- the U.S. government's "lack of recognition" has left him bitter.
"We were guinea pigs," he said.
A spokeswoman from the VA was not immediately available when contacted Monday. In a statement provided to the AP last year, the VA said the agency “wants to ensure that all veterans, including those who served in the Armed Forces during the 1970s and 1980s, have access to quality care. This includes a small group of veterans who served on the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands.”
The statement adds that "(T)he data accumulated over the three years of the project do not indicate any area or instance of concern over radiological safety. All doses, internal and external, were minimal.”
The nuclear detonations in the Marshall Islands included early tests on Bikini Atoll; the detonation of Ivy Mike, the world’s first hydrogen bomb, on Enewetak Atoll in 1954 and 1956’s Bikini Atoll explosion of Castle Bravo, the world’s largest thermonuclear device and about 1,000 times stronger than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, according to The Associated Press. In 1958, the Cactus device was exploded, leaving a 350-foot wide blast crater on Runit Island.
Laird and his group of about 300 affected veterans say they are waiting for Takai to push the bill farther along its legislative path.
Takai said in an email Tuesday that an approximated 35 percent of those who handled nuclear waste at the Enewetak Atoll now suffer from some form of cancer.
"These brave service members answered the call to serve their country, and many are now suffering from illness or injury fromexposure to toxic waste," he told FoxNews.com. "I have been fighting for the recognition and well-being of these veterans since my time in the state legislature, and was happy to bring the fight here to Congress."
Speaking of Takai, Pulis said, "He’s a clear-thinking gentleman who has seen that this is not going to be a large expense -- who has seen that this is a moral and ethical thing for the government to do."
"It’s pretty blatant at this point that we’ve all been contaminated," added veteran Jeffrey Dean, who battled stage 4 testicular cancer at age 43.
"It was a dirty job and we did it," said 59-year-old Dean, of Belfast, Maine, who worked as a watercraft operator for the Army in Enewetak in 1978.
"We didn’t hesitate or blink an eye. We did our job," Dean told FoxNews.com. "Now it’s time they back us up. They need to step up to the plate and help us out because we’re dying one right after another."
Cristina Corbin is a reporter for FoxNews.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristinaCorbin.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.