New “Atomic Veterans” Medal Honors Those Involved in Nuclear Weapon Tests, Operations

Veterans who performed the secret, often dangerous work of testing nuclear weapons deserve new recognition and may now call themselves “Atomic Veterans,” according to the Defense Department. 

The department announced the Atomic Veterans Commemorative Service Medal on July 5 to recognize that “the service and sacrifice of the Atomic Veterans directly contributed to our Nation’s continued freedom and prosperity during the period following World War II.” Their work was “pivotal to our Nation’s defense during the Cold War era,” according to the announcement

A DOD spokesperson said as many as 500,000 veterans may be eligible for the medal. 

Atomic veterans
An artist’s rendering of the reverse (back face) of the Atomic Veterans Commemorative Service Medal. Defense Department illustration.

Veterans who qualify for the medallion-only award include those who served between July 1945 and October 1992 and, as part of their military duties, took part in a nuclear detonation; or cleaned up radioactive material after a detonation or an accident; or were exposed to ionizing radiation during the “operational use” of nuclear weapons in World War II. 

The dates coincide with those of nuclear testing in the U.S., starting with the first detonation in Alamogordo, N.M. The U.S. performed 1,032 tests in all.

Medallion-only medals, given to special groups of veterans, don’t hang from a ribbon and may not be worn on uniforms, the Pentagon said, citing as other examples the Congressional Gold Medal and the Pearl Harbor Commemorative Medal. 

The director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency will manage the program, and expects to have medals available to distribute by the end of this year. Meanwhile, an online application will be set up for eligible veterans, or the next of kin of deceased eligible veterans, to start the process. 

“Our Nation’s longstanding nuclear deterrence capability resulted from the service and sacrifice of Service members (now known as Atomic Veterans) who participated in the initial testing and development of our Nation’s atomic and nuclear weapons programs,” according to the announcement. 

“Notably, the dangerous and important work these veterans performed was often done in secret due to national security requirements.”