'Atomic Veteran' honored for dedication to Post 38, military

May 9—No, "Atomic Veteran" isn't the name of a Silver Age superhero, but instead the nickname given to military members who participated in atomic weapons tests from 1945 to 1962. Jerry Willbrandt is counted among them.

For his military service and his dedication to the American Legion Post 38, Willbrandt was awarded a plaque. Willbrandt has been in the Legion for 65 years, and will turn 93 this month.

On July 15, 2021, President Joe Biden declared July 16 "Atomic Veterans Day." Following this, Willbrandt was issued a certificate to the Airman First Class in honor of his service. With the certificate, Willbrandt also received a challenge coin reading, "Awarded for unique service in support of nuclear deterrence."

Serving in Sacramento during the Korean War, Willbrandt joined the military in 1948, just a few years after the end of World War II, and ended his service in 1952.

"Basically when we came back, they would check our planes to make sure they weren't too hot," he said. "Cause if they got too close to the cloud, they [the pilots] could get hot too."

"Hot" means in this sense that they weren't exposed to too great a dose of radioactivity.

"I guess I never got hot," Willbrandt said with a laugh.

Donny Glover, Commander of Post 38, gave Willbrandt his 65-year plaque during the Post 38 monthly meeting. Glover said they would award these plaques every five years to commemorate the service that veterans in the American Legion had given.

"Jerry's been a long-time member," said Glover. "He's a great guy."

Glover bragged that Willbrandt was at every meeting, and he and his wife still will prepare food to bring to events.

"And if he never wants to lift a finger here, that's okay," he said.

Juanita Tucker is the president of the Legion Auxiliary, and she felt Willbrandt deserved to be recognized. She described Willbrandt as sweet but quiet. Despite being so taciturn, Willbrandt was sure to show off his challenge coin.

"He's not one to flaunt," said Tucker, "but every time someone came in that he hadn't shown [the coin] to ... he is so proud of that, I think he needs recognition for it."

Tucker said that there were not many Korean veterans left alive and lamented that many are not honored for some of their contributions or even the hardships they suffered.

Many "Atomic Veterans" had adverse health effects from exposure to these weapons tests.

"I think that it's a shame that they waited until 2021 to acknowledge it," said Tucker. "I seriously think they sometimes wait for the veterans to die."

Tucker likened this to Vietnam veterans' exposure to Agent Orange, the herbicide used by the US to destroy Vietnam's crops, and how many veterans got cancer from it.

Still, she had much more to say about Willbrandt and his sacrifices he made his flag and the love he has for those around him.

"Jerry is so devoted to this club, and right now his wife ... she's an auxiliary member, and she's in a nursing home right now," she explained. "He goes up there and visits her every day, and every chance he gets, he takes their dog up there with him."