One of the more commented on photos on the veterans’ Facebook page is a grainy, sun-bleached scene where young servicemen are jogging down a dusty camp road, covered head to toe in shiny white hazmat suits that most say they never wore again on the remote, radioactive Pacific island. 

“That’s what we did when we first got to Lojwa,” Norman Sova wrote. “Then (we) never used them again.” 

The photo is one of hundreds posted on the Enewetak Atoll Clean-Up Project Vets Facebook page. Its members in recent months have leveraged social media in their pursuit of recognition from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 

Otisfield resident Paul Laird II, 58, who served in 1977 and discovered the group about 18 months ago after becoming suspicious following the diagnosis of two forms of cancer within a short span. 

“When you try to do it alone, you bang your head against the wall. You’re one guy, you’re not going to get anything done. We’ve all been there, all suffered from,” Laird said. 

That fight, which drew comparisons by one former congressmen to the efforts by Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange to get heath care, is in its infancy, buoyed by a growing membership that has contacted politicians, journalists and others to further the cause. 

Those deployed to the atoll in the late 1970s were tasked with cleaning up the fallout of more than 40 nuclear tests. Many said their illnesses — including multiple forms of cancer unconnected to their lifestyle and complications with lungs and kidneys — are connected to their work 40 years ago.

They’re asking the VA — or, if that fails, Congress — to change their status to “atomic veterans” as they would then not have to prove their cancers came from radiation in order to be eligible for compensation or free medical care. 

In addition to articles in the Sun Journal and Bangor Daily News, members say major media outlets are taking notice. Earlier this week, Maine’s congressional delegation issued a letter to the VA, seeking clarification of their status. 

The movement isn’t comparable to the mass following that united disparate sections of the county under the Twitter hashtag #blacklivesmatter following the shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo., or the notoriety of recent articles about problems at VA hospitals.

Instead, the page is a small, private forum for veterans and their families championing the cause. Their posts are private, cut off from the rest of Facebook in a gated forum, with access by invitation as they are concerned that outside agents, believed to be working for the government, will spy upon them. 

Within, however, the community is thriving. Members who responded to the Sun Journal said they found out about it after searching for old friends, while others were referred by existing members. Most say they check it at least once a day.

At its outset nearly three years ago, the page was simply a way for veterans to share their stories privately, according to founder Gary Pulis. 

There’s information on contacting politicians, news articles, condolences to family members of the deceased, support for those suffering through illness and war photos. 

Professor Matthew Killmeier, who chairs the Communication and Media Studies Department at the University of Southern Maine, said it’s not unusual for social users to turn social media into a political outlet. 

“It’s not surprising. It’s a way of getting attention and a lot of stories happen now through social media first,” Killmeier said.

Some posts blast the VA and federal government, believed to be covering the entire thing up, or trying, at least, to quiet it. Others offer advice to their younger selves, with comments like, “don’t eat the coconuts.” 

James Savage posted a photo of a younger, bare-chested, clean shaven self.

“Don’t take that mask off so quick . . .” Savage writes.

In the same email issued to the Bangor Daily News, a spokesperson for the VA said that according to a 1981 report on the cleanup, veterans on the atoll wore radiation badges known as a dosimeters, and none of the 12,000 issued showed exposures exceeding limits. 

“The 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,” spokesperson Meagan Lutz said.

Laird said one man posted the message, “Help” with no other information, sending everyone into fits of panic. But instead of the specter of a medical emergency that sent members scrambling to reach him, all that was needed was a tutorial on how to post documents on Facebook. 

“He was really embarrassed. He said, ‘you guys have one heck of a network,'” Laird said. 

Mark Sargent, 55, who lives in Skowhegan, joined the group recently after reading an article. He doens’t need the insurance and is healthy, but he’s pulling for those without it. 

Like all of the members interviewed for this story, Sargent said no one ever wore anything other than a dust mask while handling fallout. 

“It’s a matter of principal, getting the recognition for the guys who can’t. I’m surprised the politicians aren’t jumping on this; I’m hoping for a lot a more,” Sargent said. 

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