Test site claimants depicted as horror movie characters in training manual

A Labor Department manual that depicts horror movie characters as training subjects for a program that compensates sick atomic workers on Tuesday outraged survivors of former Nevada Test Site workers who filed claims for illnesses linked to radioactive materials.

“I am not happy about how they portray our family members who are no longer here with us,” Brenda Bain Sieck said in an email. Her father died from cancer in 1986 after working more than two decades as a test site carpenter who re-entered nuclear weapons tunnels at the test site, now called the Nevada National Security Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. “Obviously whoever wrote this (training manual) hasn’t had a family member close to them who suffered from a horrible cancer like my father did.”

Labor Department officials backpedaled soon after complaints from survivors of atomic workers in Ohio surfaced in a story by the Dayton Daily News. The officials acknowledged that some references in the manual were offensive and quickly removed them. They said the contractor who prepared the manual “used poor judgment.”

The manual portrays a fictional claimant as the disfigured Freddy Krueger, villain of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies. Krueger’s first name was “Freddie” in the manual, a slight change in the real horror movie character’s spelling.

The Krueger in the manual is reported as dying on Halloween. He supposedly suffered from “depression, dementia and skin cancer.”

Sieck said cancer “ate away” at her father, Ronald Bain, who went from 250 pounds to 90 pounds during a lengthy illness that was diagnosed as chronic lymphoma cancer. After his death, and after spending nearly two years helping her mother file reams of paperwork, they were awarded $150,000 each for two cancer claims based on exposures to both radioactive materials and toxic materials.

In addition to the Krueger character, another would-be claimant in the manual is called Jack Bauer, the hero of TV’s “24.” A pathologist is called Hannibal Lechter, an apparent reference to the cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter of books and movies. TV doctors treating patients in the case studies include Dr. Amanda Bentley, a character on the series “Diagnosis: Murder,” and Dr. Marcus Welby, who was a genial family practitioner on an ABC drama.

Labor Department spokesman Jesse Lawder said the manual is used to train claims examiners on the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program. The name of the contractor who produced the training manual and the cost of the contract were not available late Tuesday.

Lawder, however, released a statement from the program’s acting director, Gary Steinberg, who said the manual “was prepared several years ago by a former contractor for internal use only.”

“Upon review of the material, we agree that the use of fictional characters with negative attributes could be perceived as insensitive,” Steinberg said in the statement. “We believe the contractor used poor judgment given the nature of the program and we have removed the references in question from our training materials.

“We remain committed to serving our claimants, and an oversight of this nature does not reflect the values and principles by which we operate as an agency.”

David Manuta of Waverly, Ohio, wrote to the Labor Department as a member of the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups, saying the references are examples of continued disrespect for claimants.

As news of the manual reached Nevada, more claimants and former test site workers weighed in.

Las Vegas attorney Jerry Kaufman, who was a claimant for more than 10 years and who helped others file claims, said he was “shocked” by the manual and its “treatment of tragedy by fantasy names and scenarios.”

“The people whom I worked with were more than willing to travel to the test site. We were eager. The pain came in the form of surgery, radiation prescribed in the hospital, chemotherapy and, finally, in the form of avoidance and ignoring our plight,” Kaufman wrote in an email.

Fred Dunham, a contract worker whose exposure records were kept by the Department of Energy though he worked at the Defense Department’s secret Area 51 installation adjacent to the test site, said the training manual debacle “makes it very clear that the Department of Labor and DOE do not have their heart in the process of helping these families who have given their lives for this country. I think there needs to be a staff realignment within these agencies.”

Dunham’s claim was denied on a technicality in 2008, but he recently challenged the process in a complaint to the program’s ombudsman’s office.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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