NORTH AUGUSTA — Decades of hazardous work, confidential missions and odd hours were under the spotlight Wednesday at the North Augusta Community Center, as the Cold War Patriots organization held its regional National Day of Remembrance event.
Attending were dozens of workers from the nuclear industry, associated largely with the Savannah River Site, known for its first few decades as the Savannah River Plant. Speakers expressed thanks to (and for) employees of "the bomb plant, as it was known in its early days," as recalled by Bob Pettit, North Augusta's mayor.
Pettit recalled that the Cold War is officially described as having run from 1947 until 1991. "Twenty-seven of my years were spent in the Air Force during that period, and coincidentally, I retired in 1991 … but also, let me thank you for your service. …
"Your service began and continued oftentimes without really knowing the hazards of the chemicals and … the radiation, so you were doing a job not only for the future, but dealing with the unknowns of the materials you were dealing with, so it's important to know that you … are provided an opportunity to be taken care of through the Cold War Patriots organization."
Among the workers in attendance was Monetta resident Ernest Tillman Padgett, 87. He shared some thoughts after the event, recalling his experiences from 1954 to 1964 when layoffs loomed large and he opted for a career shift and became a long-haul trucker until age 80, when he found he had colon cancer in 2012.
"I worked with uranium when it first came into the building," he said, recalling a variety of responsibilities and locations. His cancer, he said, was assessed as being a result of his work at the massive nuclear reservation.
His next challenge, he said, was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, followed by neuropathy, largely affecting his feet.
Referring to his work and his medical problems, he said, "They said this … caused everything else, but it didn't cause my heartbeat to go bad."
Pettit recalled being struck by the nuclear reservation's mission and its importance in the field of "nuclear weapon production."
"That's an awesome effort that you were a part of. No doubt about it … I want to salute you for what you did. Every day you made a long drive, early in the morning, and I imagine it grew tiresome, but you persevered. Your job was exacting. You had a lot of requirements to do your job … and I'm sure at times you had doubts, but you also persevered. It's important to say 'thank you' and to do it today on behalf of the millions who are really unaware of the sacrifices and, more importantly, the contributions that you made to this nation."
Padgett, who is now receiving help via Professional Case Management, aired some thoughts regarding politics, financing and the aftermath of terrorism.
"I don't understand why … the most we can get is $400,000. People from the World Trade Center, a foreign government did them, and they get $1 million," he said. "We get half of what they do. There's something wrong with the picture there."
Wednesday's event in North Augusta also included a reading of dozens of names of energy employees who worked at SRS and died within the past few months .
Wednesday's activities, on the national scene, included the issuing of a statement by Julia Hearthway, director of the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs.
“When workers who helped build and safeguard our country’s most dangerous weapons became ill because of their work, they had nowhere to turn. Congress passed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act on October 30, 2000, a date now honored as a day of remembrance for nuclear weapons program workers, including uranium miners, millers, and ore transporters," it read in part.
“Within the U.S. Department of Labor, the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (OWCP) has the primary responsibility for administering the act, including the adjudication of claims and the payment of benefits. To date, almost $17 billion in compensation and medical bill payments have been remitted to those workers and their families.
"While our country can never show our full appreciation to those workers who became ill protecting our country and their families, the resource center and claims staff at Department of Labor work hard every day to ensure that we provide as much assistance as possible to those in need. These injured workers, who worked so hard for all of us, deserve it.”
The Savannah River Plant, a project of the Atomic Energy Commission, was announced to the public in 1950, and an Aiken Standard and Review headline of Nov. 29, 1950, proclaimed, "AEC To Construct Huge Plant Near Aiken." Results included a growth spurt in what would become known as the Central Savannah River Area – mainly the South Carolina counties of Aiken, Edgefield and Barnwell and their Georgia counterparts of Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties.
Wednesday's gathering in North Augusta also included support from representatives of such organizations as American Legion Post 71, Heights Church and Affinis Hospice.