ALTOONA, Pa. (AP) —
Close friends and U.S. Army veterans Dave Scott and Phil Cummings hadn’t seen each other for 43 years since the two finished their service in the Marshall Islands in 1978.
Scott and Cummings were comrades in a dangerous endeavor on the Enewetak Atoll from October 1977 to April 1978. They were assisting with ridding the islands of nuclear waste from years of bomb testing during the early stages of the Cold War.
Recently, after reconnecting with Scott over the internet three years ago, Cummings, of Rathdrum, Idaho, traveled to Altoona to see his old friend.
“We’re excited about seeing each other,” Scott said on a recent Friday morning.
Cummings chimed in with an observation, “I think he’s in better shape than I am,” and the two laughed.
“His bunk (in the Marshall Islands) was across from mine, so we interacted all the time together and spent a lot of time together,” Cummings said. “You get to know somebody pretty well after six months living with them.”
Scott served in the Army from 1976-78 before joining the National Guard in the mid-1980s, where he served for five years. Cummings served in the Army from 1974-78.
The two first crossed paths when both were sent to the Marshall Islands, where Scott’s role was in equipment and truck maintenance and Cummings served as a mechanic and motor sergeant during the Enewetak cleanup project.
Scott said he and Cummings had a lot of catching up to do, updating each other on their families and what they’ve been up to in the years since they bonded over their common mission, which they enjoy reminiscing about during their morning visit.
But along with the memories, Scott and Cummings share the scars etched by repeated exposure to the harmful waste that resulted from the military’s bomb testing in the 1940s and ’50s.
Scott believes the cleanup project was a fruitless effort that only caused more harm. He suffers from mitral valve prolapse, a heart condition, which he said has been linked to radioactive exposure during his six-month tour of service.
“We never should have been there in the first place,” Scott said. “It was a mistake. With the cleanup agreement, they really didn’t understand radioactivity.”
Neither did he and his friend, he added.
“We were young, and we didn’t worry about exposure at all,” Scott said. “We never thought about it. We just enjoyed ourselves.”
The cleanup “was an absolute waste of time,” Cummings said. He, too, has experienced medical problems that he blames on the work. Cummings said he has lost teeth on multiple occasions, which he attributes to the radioactive exposure.
Cummings said several of his comrades on the project have had the same issue, which has been linked to Strontium-90, a radioactive isotope created from nuclear fission.
“I’ve been to a lot of reunions, and some of the guys are pretty bitter,” Cummings said. “A lot of them have cancer, and a lot of us have health problems.”
“They like to use the term that they thought we were lab rats, but I just don’t think the government knew that much about (radioactive exposure) back then,” Cummings said. “I don’t think they understood the fallout of these atomic bombs and that cleanup would be a waste of time.”
Ultimately, Cummings said, the damage done to the islands is irreparable, and more harm is done in trying to reverse it.
“The more you try to clean it up, you disturb the sand and the coral, the dust on the islands and the sediment in the bottom of the lagoon; you make it worse,” Cummings said. “Those islands will really never be home to sustainable life. They’ll never be habitable.”
While time may not be able to heal their wounds, it’s brought the friends closer.
In their visit so far, Scott has given Cummings a tour of Altoona, taking him to various sites like the Railroaders Memorial Museum, and the two plan to attend an Aerosmith tribute band concert together.
“It’s like we never left each other,” Scott said. “We got back to where we left off.”