The U.S. government killed Donald Guy.
That’s what Craig Kabatchnick of Greensboro believes.
Kabatchnick, a lawyer, law professor and director of N.C. Central University’s Veterans Law Clinic, represented Guy in his quest for disability benefits relating to radiation exposure as a Marine in 1953.
Kabatchnick won the case in 2009, months before Guy died, but Guy’s widow did not receive a settlement until this spring.
Guy and his fellow Marines had watched nuclear-blast tests at Camp Desert Rock, Utah, in 1953. They were ordered to march toward the blast and remain at the test site for days, still wearing contaminated clothes, Kabatchnick said.
“Only a handful of the veterans (who were exposed to the tests) have survived,” he said. “They’re all about 83.”
Kabatchnick’s passion is “Radioactive Veterans: A New Look at Nuclear Testing in America,” a documentary about Guy, his widow and civilians from St. George, Utah — called “downwinders” — who were exposed to radiation during tests in the area.
In the wake of his son Ryan’s suicide in 2012 and being diagnosed with acute Parkinson’s disease, Kabatchnick was looking to leave a legacy and to create a piece of history.
“After Ryan died, I didn’t know my purpose in life,” he said.
He said he found a new purpose when he and a team of filmmakers began creating this documentary, which is in the production phase. A short version of the documentary will be screened Tuesday evening at Temple Emanuel.
“We are all students of history, but when you become part of history, and we all are, there’s nothing better in life,” he said.
A lot of the research for the documentary came from Kabatchnick’s own experience in veteran law and his involvement in seeking benefits for Guy.
Kabatchnick said he has been passionate about military law ever since graduating from George Washington University and partnering at a law firm with his father.
It was through the Guy case that he noticed a lack of writings about veterans of the atomic race. In 2013, he published a widely sourced academic law article titled “Radioactive Veterans: A New Look at the Nuclear History of America.”
“No law schools had done it,” Kabatchnick said.
The article outlined the life and legal battles plaguing nearly 400,000 veterans and their families, focusing on a denial of responsibility by the U.S. government that led to little-to-no compensation for the veterans.
“What it involves is a complete disregard on behalf of the government to take care of atomic vets, which they knew were given lethal doses of radiation,” he said. “They knew it.”
The documentary began as an assignment for Kabatchnick’s 2013 veteran law class at NCCU. One of his students, Mark Wampler, a Marine Corps veteran passionate about helping atomic vets, became the documentary’s director.
“It seemed like a really, really great story,” Walmper said.
Bradley Bethel, the filmmaker of “Unverified: The Untold Story of the UNC Scandal,” was brought in after hearing the story and discovering that the documentary crew was looking for someone with more film experience.
“This story with the radioactive veterans was really interesting, and this is just one of those stories that needs to be told,” Bethel said. “I want to find out more.”
Bethel began to help turn the story into a full-length documentary.
“We spent some time outlining and rearranging elements of the story and came out with a tight storyline,” he said.
Most of the testing in the U.S. took place in isolated deserts of Utah and Nevada, which has been the government’s defense when denying claims. While the blasts were contained, the fallout spread to both immediate and far-away areas, creating severe health impacts on many people.
Filming at a St. George cemetery moved Kabatchnick to tears, he said. “Downwinder” families, including young people, are buried there.
“At the cemetery, they had a radiation detection sensor,” he said.
Before Mary Guy finally received her late husband’s disability settlement this spring, “she had lost her house to his medical bills,” he said.
Lots of the planning for the documentary was done at the Ham’s on New Garden Road in Greensboro. Kabatchnick watches every Washington Nationals game there and regularly meets with students, community members and the filmmakers. He invites veterans to seek him out during the games.
“This journey for him has been a new chapter in his life and a way of finding new meaning,” Bethel said.
The documentary team last week was invited to screen the film as a work in progress at the Film Festival of Columbus.
“We got lots of positive feedback and ideas to make the film even better,” Bethel said.
Bethel hopes to premiere the full documentary at DocUtah, the International Documentary Film Festival presented by Dixie State University in St. George, and will apply to the Full Bloom and Indigo Moon festivals.
The team has a crowdfunding campaign through the end of June to raise $10,000 for the costs of editing and promotion.
“With this campaign and this film, I want to give someone the opportunity to demand change and contribute to a cause where people are actually doing real work to help this population,” Wampler said.
Kabatchnick said he hopes to help draft legislation to be introduced in Congress that would help veterans and their families fight for compensation for their service.
“It is all a part of the legacy I want to leave behind,” he said.