Forgotten Hero: Local veteran says he's left out after serving on atomic cleanup tour
There's something rewarding about a nice hobby. For Aaron Ducote, that comes from making barbecue sauce, as well as a couple of seasonings.
"I added my own little twist to a family recipe, and changed up the recipe and made it more of what we're accustomed to down here," explained Ducote.
In fact, he's made a little name for himself, selling his product around Avoyelles and St. Landry Parishes; even a bit farther away.
"We've sold it in Hawaii, we've sold it in Spain, and we've shipped it to a bunch of military friends in different countries," said Ducote.
But, mass production was recently cut short.
"We were selling good for a while until I got sick in 2015," remembered Ducote.
When Ducote said he was sick, it's not like when you and I come down with a cold. He had to have heart surgery.
"Whenever they first started seeing the signs of the heart valve problem, they asked ‘when did you get chemotherapy,’ recounted Ducote. "I said ‘I've never had chemotherapy.’ And they said ‘the deterioration of your heart valve, it's consistent with the evidence of someone who's been exposed to high amounts and doses of radiation.’"
So how did Ducote become so exposed to radiation?
Well, he's an army veteran and during the late 70s, he was a part of roughly 4,000 US soldiers sent to Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It was an island used to test nuclear bombs.
"They started a nuclear cleanup project, sending servicemen out there to clean the debris and vegetation off the island to make it more inhabitable to the people of that area," explained Ducote.
For three years, soldiers were brought on the island in waves to work for six months at a time. There they became known as Lojwa Animals, named after the base they were living on.
They were told there was a small amount of radiation, but near the end of the tour, Ducote said they started getting sick. And, it's the lasting effect that's really taking the toll.
"People that were stationed on the island, they all started developing cancers and other illnesses,” expressed Ducote. “Some of them just didn't make it too far in life. They got sick immediately. And I've been in touch with the 30 or 40 remaining vets that are there."
But he said the worst part is that neither the military nor the VA will connect these health problems with the atomic cleanup, meaning he hasn't had success in getting benefits.
"There's so few of us, it just seems like they would rather deny until we die than admit that we were in harm's way, they put us there, and they know that there's a problem with us," said Ducote. "Just like the other Marshallese that were on the islands, they had no problem giving them millions of dollars in benefits and health care, relocated some to all over the United States. But the US is forgetting about the veterans that were there and served our country."
Of course, Ducote isn't the first atomic cleanup vet to share his story. He mentioned other efforts that have even lead some US politicians to push for the VA to recognize the efforts of soldiers like himself.
He's not positive it will lead anywhere, but he has hope that he'll at least one day be recognized.
"Why can't we get recognition for it,” asked Ducote. “It's all just pushed aside like it never happened. We were hidden for so long, it's kind of hard for them to bring it up now and admit to it."
In the meantime, he's looking to get back on track with the barbecue sauce, hoping to make a big batch after the holidays, just in time for the spring cookouts.
I mean, like I said, there's something rewarding about a nice hobby. And in this case, it's just what Ducote needs.
"I have to keep my mind busy. Focus on something else."
For more information on the Atomic Cleanup Vets check out the attached link. If you're interested in Ducote's Barbecue Sauce and Spices you can reach him at email@example.com.