Britain’s nuclear test veterans speak out as their work is honored at last

Terry Quinlan, who served in the Royal Army Service Corps and witnessed five detonations while serving in the South Pacific, had begun his morning with a three-hour tribunal with Veterans UK, the body which makes decisions on war pensions.

He described to The Telegraph the various ailments, including large tumors on his side, that he believed were linked to his time on Christmas Island. He said he had five heart surgeries, during one of which the surgeon found metal shrapnel buried in his chest.

Two decades on from reaching retirement age, however, Mr Quinlan, 83, is still fighting to be granted a war pension.

“It’s been terribly hard, a twenty-year battle,” he said.

A long-standing debate reignited: Who is truly deserving of a medal?

By Dominic Nicholls

“A medal glitters, but it also casts a shadow,” Winston Churchill said in 1944.

“The task of drawing up regulations for such awards is one which does not admit of a perfect solution.”

The shadow of the words from Britain’s wartime leader reach us today, with the news of a new medal to be awarded to military veterans and civilians who participated in Britain’s nuclear test program between 1952 and 1967.

Once scientists and local employees are included, it is estimated that around 22,000 people will be eligible for medallic recognition.

The award of medals, and other official recognition of service, is often a controversial area of ​​public policy.

Who and what deserves recognition? Is the relatively simple matter of geographic proximity to danger while working for the state sufficient, or do certain events warrant particular recognition?

The former was tested during the campaigns against Iraq in 1991 and 2003 when service personnel in Cyprus were awarded campaign medals as they were working within ballistic missile range of Saddam’s forces. The decision caused controversy.

Take also the case of Bomber Command from the Second World War.

In 2012, after a long campaign, these veterans were awarded a clasp to be worn on the 1939-1945 Star, an existing medal and one already awarded to the individuals.

The decision was taken not to cast a separate Bomber Command medal.

The award today of a commemorative medal for veterans of the nuclear tests sits somewhere in the middle of this controversy.

Churchill said medals should give “pride and pleasure to those who have deserved them” but was clear-eyed about the difficulty of defining who and what should be considered deserving.

“There must, therefore, be heart-burnings and disappointments on the borderline.”

There will be heart-burning today, as the debate over recognition is ignited once more.

Recognizing and rewarding service is distinctive primarily because of the rarity with which such qualifying events occur.

Commemorative medals do not have to involve danger

Commemorative medals, such as the one announced today, are distinct from operational medals and do not always have to involve danger to the recipients. They can be awarded for specific national historical events, for example, such as the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee medal.

However, this category can also be used to recognize very dangerous situations, although ones not in the face of an obvious “enemy”.

For example, in 2015 the late Queen approved a medal for those who responded to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The medal was awarded to civilians and military personnel who served in the clearly defined geographical areas of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and their territorial waters.

Then, as now, considered and heartfelt criticism of such medals should be answered, albeit unsatisfactorily, with Churchill’s final words on the matter:

“It is not possible to satisfy everybody without running the risk of satisfying nobody. All that is possible is to give the greatest satisfaction to the greatest number and to hurt the feelings of the fewest.”


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