While Pat Broudy of Laguna Niguel was in Washington two weeks ago lobbying U.S. congressmen and senators for passage of a bill to compensate military radiation victims, she made her first visit to the Vietnam War Memorial.
Workers were carving some new names in the stone, and Broudy watched transfixed while individuals and whole families came, paid silent tribute for a few minutes and left.
"It was an overpowering experience," Broudy says, "and I kept wondering over and over if we would ever stop this madness."
Pat Broudy is convinced that her husband, Marine Corps Maj. Charles Broudy, who died of lymphona in 1977 after exposure to nuclear tests in the Nevada desert, is as surely a military casualty as any of the names on the Vietnam Memorial. And she has spent the last decade trying to prove it--and to make sure it won't happen to anyone else.
On the surface, it appears to be a pretty uneven fight. In one corner, at 5 feet and 100 pounds (while holding a stack of legal depositions), is Pat Broudy, outraged widow. In the other corner are the Veterans Administration and the Marine Corps. But so far, Broudy insists she's ahead on points.
"I started with nothing 10 years ago," she says, sitting in the living room of her spacious home in a gated community, "and now we have legislation working with a good chance of passing that would compensate both victims and survivors. And we've won some landmark lawsuits, too."
Charles Broudy was a career Marine pilot who flew combat in the South Pacific and was sent to radiological defense school in San Francisco after World War II. That's where Pat met him. They courted for a year and married in January, 1949. By that time, he had already been exposed to the target vessels towed back from the Pacific nuclear tests.
Ten years later, Maj. Broudy was assigned to the Marine Corps command staff at the Nevada nuclear testing site. According to Pat Broudy, he was less than three miles from Ground Zero when the largest atomic test ever detonated in the United States was set off.
Shortly thereafter, Maj. Broudy spent two hours inspecting vehicles and other installations within 400 yards of the blast site. Pat Broudy considers it more than coincidence that many members of two movie companies--including Dick Powell, Susan Hayward and John Wayne--filming in the same area many months later died of cancer.
Maj. Broudy retired from the Marines in 1960, got a degree in business administration, joined an aerospace firm, did some moonlighting as a commercial pilot, then bought a bicycle shop in Huntington Beach, which he and his wife operated together.
In 1976, he began feeling ill and, later that year, his ailment was diagnosed as cancer of the lymph glands. He died a year later, but several months before his death, he saw a TV interview with another veteran who was dying of leukemia and blaming radiation exposure. That victim urged fellow veterans similarly exposed to file a claim with the Veterans Administration. That's what started the chain of events that have occupied much of Broudy's life since her husband's death.
Although she continued to operate the bicycle shop with her teen-age son and work as a legal secretary, Broudy spent every spare moment researching radiation exposure. She convinced herself--and since then a lot of influential people--that her husband was a victim of radiation. Each time she compiled new evidence, she would file a claim with the VA.
Each time, it was rejected.
Then she met attorney Ron Bakal, who had argued the case for the natives who said their homes were contaminated by the nuclear testing in the South Pacific. That lawsuit was rejected, but Bakal got a compensation law through Congress. She called him for help, and he has represented her ever since.
"I was consumed with anger," she says today. "My government had done this to my husband. We couldn't even get his records. The VA said they were burned in a fire. I wanted desperately to vindicate my husband's death and stop the testing so other people wouldn't get hurt."
Some of the ways she set about doing it turned out to be counter-productive. When she got license plates that said NO NUKES, "people tried to run me off the freeway. They'd pass me and give me the finger and scream obscenities. One day when my son went out to my car to get something, he found a note under the windshield so awful he wouldn't even show it to me. That's when he took my plates and exchanged them."
But most of her efforts have been considerably more successful, despite overwhelming odds. When Broudy filed her first wrongful death suit against the VA in 1978, she was bucking two previously sacrosanct legal cornerstones: the 1950 Feres Doctrine establishing sovereign immunity for the government, and a Civil War law that prevents veterans from paying an attorney more than $10 if they want legal help regarding VA decisions.