SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — On Christmas Eve, Victor Skaar mailed a stack of letters to Air Force veterans he had served with in Palomares, Spain, scrawling a simple headline at the top of each one: “Great News!”
Mr. Skaar, a retired chief master sergeant, was one of 1,600 troops scrambled by the Air Force in 1966 to clean up a classified nuclear disaster by collecting debris and shoveling up plutonium-laced soil. Many were later stricken with cancer and other ailments, and tried without success to get the federal government to take responsibility and pay for their medical care.
He wanted to spread the word about an encouraging development: A lawsuit he had filed against the Department of Veterans Affairs had been certified as a class action, meaning that there was finally a chance to set the plutonium case straight, not just for him but for everyone who was there.
But his letters soon began trickling back to him: Undeliverable. No forwarding address. One brought a reply from a widow. Each one in his mailbox made his heart sink.
“For many of them, it’s too late,” he said of his comrades. “They’re gone.”
As one of the first cases ever granted class-action status by the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, the Skaar lawsuit represents a major step forward for veterans with long-term health issues linked to toxic exposure in the service.