A Coon Rapids High School graduate was awarded a Humanitarian Service Medal in 1980 for his role in a United States government mission to clean up a Pacific island contaminated by nuclear bomb testing during the early stages of the Cold War. He knew nothing about this medal until 2016.
Keith Kiefer enlisted in the Air Force after he graduated from Coon Rapids High School in 1975.
Between March and August of 1978 he was at Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands where the United States was in the process of moving 111,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and scrap parts to a hole that was covered by a concrete dome called the Runit Dome because that is the name of the tiny island it sits on to this day.
The military personnel who helped with this mission between 1977 and 1980 were awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal.
A July 1980 Air Force Times magazine article about this mission included the names of the medal recipients and Kiefer noticed earlier in 2016 the name “Keith Keifer.”
It turns out that the Air Force had spelled his name wrong. He found out through further research that the Air Force had his correct Ramsey mailing address in 1980, but nobody ever wrote him a letter to let him know he had a medal to receive.
After contacting Congressman Tom Emmer’s office and receiving assistance from his staff and from Andrew Mathews, who was elected in November to his first term in the Minnesota Senate, Kiefer finally has his medal. Emmer awarded it to him in mid-December at his Otsego office.
While he knows the mission was ultimately not successful and that the legacy of nuclear bomb testing in the Marshall Islands has left radiological scars that will remain for thousands of years, Kiefer has spent much of his time in the last three years working to get atomic veterans recognition for the service to their country that did not always tell them what was going on.
“It’s nice to have some recognition for the work that you did,” said Kiefer, who moved from Ramsey to Blue Hill Township in Sherburne County three years ago after having lived most of his life in Anoka County.
Rebecca Alery, Emmer’s communications director, said Emmer has placed a lot of emphasis on helping active duty military and veterans in any way possible. He has attended deployment and welcome-home ceremonies, hosted a veterans resource fair and has participated in Honor Flights for World War II veterans to visit Washington, D.C.
“Congressman Emmer has felt privileged to have had the opportunity to award numerous constituents with awards they have been granted, and being able to help Keith receive the award he was granted 40 years after the fact was an honor,” Alery said.
For the six months in 1978 in which he was on Enewetak Atoll, Kiefer assisted with getting radio, telephone and radar systems working again so that the military would have phone and radio lines to communicate on and off the island and they would have some warning if a typhoon was heading toward them.
He helped dig trenches in contaminated soil to bury new phone lines for the residents they hoped would be able to live on the island again. The U.S. government had displaced residents of Enewetak Atoll and Bikini Atoll about 200 miles to the east while nuclear testing happened between 1946 and 1958 in the Marshall Islands.
The U.S. saw the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after it dropped two atomic bombs on these Japanese cities to end World War II, and it was testing atomic and later nuclear bombs in the isolated desert areas of the American Southwest. But it wanted to test what would happen if a nuclear bomb was set off in the ocean. They set out old ships to see what would happen and parts of these old ships that were blown up fell onto the beaches and were left behind.
There were also parts from old tanks and other war equipment destroyed and left behind after a one-week battle in February 1944 during World War II.
“There was a little bit of everything strewn about the island,” he said.
While Kiefer’s mission papers made it clear to him that they were cleaning up a contaminated zone, he does not recall many safety precautions and warnings from the military. Because of the hot temperatures of this Pacific island climate, many men wore shorts and no shirt. And the yellow suits he saw appeared more like basic chemical suits and nothing that would keep out radiation.
The water they drank came out of the lagoon. They ate the local fish and coconuts. A 2013 study from the U.S. Department of Energy showed the soil around the Runit Dome was more contaminated than what was in the dome itself.
He once remembers hearing that they would not be exposed to any more radiation than if they were walking around New York City or wearing a radium dial watch.
“The government is still in denial that we ever were exposed to radiation,” Kiefer said. “It’s basically a no-brainer. If contamination was not a hazard to people, why did we have to clean it up?”
Kiefer said the military did not ask for any baseline medical tests before and after the mission. Because he was suspicious, he did get a sperm test before he went. He and his wife had trouble conceiving a baby after he returned in 1978 and a new sperm test showed Kiefer was sterile.
But two years later, their first daughter was born and they now have four daughters.
Kiefer has never had cancer but has an autoimmune blood clotting disorder and a thyroid problem.
He saw a CBS “60 Minutes” story in 1980 by Morley Safer titled “Remember Enewetak.”
“That’s when I first learned our mission to rehabilitate the Enewetak Atoll had failed,” he said.
He learned about the National Association of Atomic Veterans in 1983 and made contact with other veterans but did not join the organization until 2013. He was appointed the co-commander of the Minnesota NAAV in 2014 and in July was elected vice commander of the national NAAV organization.
One of the NAAV’s goals is to have an Atomic Veterans Day on July 16, which is the anniversary of when the first atomic bomb, named Trinity, was tested in 1945.
President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation declaring July 16, 1983, as “National Atomic Veterans Day.”
“Unfortunately it failed to include the words ‘and every year hereafter,’” Kiefer said.
Bills were introduced in Minnesota’s House and Senate this past session. Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, was a primary sponsor of this bill. But the legislation never made it out of committee. Gov. Mark Dayton issued a proclamation declaring July 16, 2016, as Atomic Veterans Day.
Kiefer said NAAV also is striving for the federal government to create a new Atomic Veterans Service Medal.
“These issues have been important to me because the veterans are forgotten veterans of the Cold War, many having been wounded or having died from friendly fire of the invisible bullets of ionization radiation without receiving the recognition nor medical care promised,” he said.