As Tina Cordova perused pages of her hometown paper, Alamogordo Daily News, she came across a letter to the editor sent in from Fred Tyler, a fellow Tularosa Basin native who had returned to New Mexico after 30 years away. “I’m back now and everybody’s sick and dying, and my mom just died,” Cordova recalls reading. “I wonder when we’re going to hold our government accountable for the damage they did to us?”

That question had been festering for years inside Cordova, who is the fourth generation of her family to get cancer since the Trinity test in 1945 — the world’s first nuclear bomb — contaminated the air, soil and groundwater of her remote rural community just 65 miles from the detonation site. She kept a file of newspaper clippings on downwinders from other states who claimed their cancer came from nuclear weapons testing in southern Nevada. After reading Tyler’s letter that day in 2005, she called him and shared the deaths and health problems her family suffered since Trinity.

“We are hard-working, tax-paying patriots,” she says. “My grandfather was killed in Germany (during World War II) and is buried in Belgium. My family has given a hell of a lot to this. I don’t know what more they want from us. But it’s easy for them to look away from us.” Together, Cordova and Tyler founded the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium that same year, spending the past 18 years fighting for generational downwinders and uranium miners to not just get individual payments of up to $100,000, an amount mandated by Congress in 1990 for victims, but also health care for the illnesses they continue to endure.

For nearly two decades, the consortium has gathered oral histories of families of survivors. They have evidence that military and government officials dismissed concerns expressed by a few scientists with the Manhattan Project of radioactive fallout poisoning people and the environment. They have proof that no warnings were given to residents living near the test site. Not that it would have mattered much, though, since the fallout reached far and wide. New research released last year by Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security shows the contamination from the Trinity blast spread beyond New Mexico to 45 other states, further strengthening the consortium’s appeal to extend a 34-year-old federal program to compensate downwinders in Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Guam for harm caused by the radioactive fallout.

The ongoing, difficult struggle to address the harm from nuclear weapons testing is probably the highest-stakes example of the complicated relationship that has evolved over the past two centuries between the military and the West. While the federal government is constitutionally bound to defend the country, the people and the land they live on have been hurt in achieving that mission. The conflict is particularly profound in states where the positive impact of a military installation on a local community — infrastructure, jobs, growth, tax revenue, social structures — can obscure the risks of hitching a local economy to a government-operated military installation. That’s the rub throughout most of the West, which was historically explored, occupied, shaped, paved and built by government largesse and the military. But the communities that rely on the economic stability and infrastructure that the military has provided are often the same communities later wracked with consequences that strip the land, water, air and people of their health. It’s a tension that has plagued past generations, and one that will become more fraught as those living in the West continue to weigh the accumulating costs against the economic benefits of contributing to their nation’s defense.

The Senate and House negotiated a defense spending bill that could extend the compensation program Cordova and the consortium are fighting for before it expires in June. But the downwinders, who are the most acute victims, represent a fraction of the thousands of Americans living within the reach of at least 38 military bases in the West that are also EPA Superfund sites — an indication that just containing the contamination, let alone cleaning it up, is billions of dollars and many years away.

Mitigating the damage done through decades of military use of Western lands — and dealing with the dilemma of curbing future damage — has been agonizingly slow for people like Cordova. That will likely not change in the near future. “At the end of the day, I go back to this famous dictum of Immanuel Kant: ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made,’” says Stanford University history professor David Kennedy, who co-edited the book “World War II and the West it Wrought.” “This is the world we live in. There are dilemmas that don’t yield easy solutions. And this is one of them.”

“The struggle to address the harm from nuclear weapons testing is probably the highest-stakes example of the complicated relationship between the military and the West.”

The U.S. military has had a presence in the American West for over two centuries, since Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery began its famous expedition into the Northwest in 1804. But that presence expanded dramatically as the nation readied itself for World War II.

Beginning in October 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began withdrawing huge tracts of public lands in the Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts by executive orders for defense purposes. Among those withdrawals were 1.2 million acres of the Alamogordo range, where the Trinity Test would take place. Through these executive orders, land condemnation and purchases, the military occupied New Mexico’s isolated Pajarito Plateau, where scientists developed the atom bomb at what is now called Los Alamos National Laboratory. All but seven of the more than two dozen military bases and depots still operating in the Intermountain West were either established or significantly expanded during World War II. By the stroke of a pen, the Department of Defense became a major landlord in the West — controlling more than 17.5 million acres in 10 Western states — and making New Mexico, California, Nevada, Arizona, Alaska and Utah the top six military states in the country today in terms of acreage. “In Utah, the (Department of Defense’s) total acreage exceeds the combined acreage of the ‘Mighty 5’ national parks (Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion) for which the Beehive State is renowned around the world,” University of Pennsylvania historian Jared Farmer writes in an article published in “World War II and the West it Wrought.”

A federal takeover of Western terrain would appear to go against the region’s ethos of resisting government encroachment of the land. But political leaders recognized the economic benefits of the military moving in and privately welcomed the armed forces despite constituent ranchers and farmers complaining about government intrusion. “Out of one side of his mouth he defended the customary rights of freedom-loving ranchers against the tyranny of big government; out of the other he sweet-talked the military to make sure Nevada got as many bases and government jobs as possible,” Farmer writes of U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran of Nevada, a Democrat who represented Nevada from 1933 to 1954. “In similar fashion, Utah’s elected leaders welcomed the War Department even as they castigated the Interior Department” over other land management disputes.

It wasn’t just political lobbying that prompted the armed forces to look West. The late economic historian Gerald Nash concludes that military leaders were attracted to the sparsely populated, undeveloped expanse of the West because it provided “an inviting milieu for technological innovation and experimentation” with weapons, aircraft and other defense systems. Open spaces were soon spoken for and molded not by private developers, but by the federal government.

In the Cold War era, the government continued to spend, funneling more than $100 billion into Western military installations between 1945 and 1973, according to Nash. The ongoing investment resulted in a new infrastructure of roads, utilities, hospitals and schools to support the growing armed forces presence. For civilians, the lure of the West shifted from wide-open spaces to high-paying jobs with military contractors in electronics, aerospace, communications, engineering and computing. “Military spending rather than market conditions determined the locations of high-tech industries,” Nash says. But changing geopolitics and concerns over deficit spending would eventually curb the downrush of federal funds and force local officials to rethink their economic strategy.

“By the stroke of a pen, the Department of Defense became a major landlord in the West, controlling more than 17.5 million acres in 10 Western states.”

In the early 1990s, Mike Leavitt was in his first term as Utah’s governor when local government, business and retired military leaders invited him for dinner at one of their homes in Layton and a meeting on the fate of Hill Air Force Base and other Defense Department assets in the state. Congress had authorized a Base Realignment and Closure Commission to streamline defense spending in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. BRAC outlined three rounds of cutbacks nationwide totaling $14 billion. Utah escaped the 1991 round. But for the next rounds in 1993 and 1995, the state was on notice that Hill Air Force Base, Defense Depot Ogden, Tooele Army Depot and Dugway Proving Ground were on the chopping block. “It was kind of all hands on deck to come up with a way to respond,” Leavitt, who would later serve as a Bush administration cabinet member, recalls of the meeting.

Utah wasn’t alone. BRAC jolted neighboring states to make their case to the commission that their beloved military bases were not only essential to the nation’s defense, but also to the survival of their local economies. New Mexico successfully made its case for Cannon Air Force Base, which, along with nearby Melrose Air Force Range, provides 6,413 jobs and more than $400 million in wages and salaries in the small town of Clovis, near the Texas border.

After those three rounds, Utah lost the Ogden depot and part of the Tooele installation, which eliminated a $240 million payroll going to 6,368 employees from those local economies. The Ogden installation was eventually turned into an industrial park and the military truck maintenance plant in Tooele was sold to a Detroit diesel engine manufacturer. But economists say the BRAC process should have been a wake-up call to all state and local leaders about the risk of relying too heavily on defense spending. “If the money keeps flowing, everything can kind of work. But if the money goes away, it’s not like the past history of that money has changed the fortunes of these places,” says Taylor Jawarski, an associate professor of economics at the University of Colorado Boulder.

State officials work year-round to not just increase the defense dollars coming in, but to attract industry adjacent to the mission of the armed forces in hopes of offsetting any economic disruption caused by a military installation scaling back or closing. In New Mexico, where defense jobs total 18,000 — the state’s 17th largest employer — and defense-related jobs total 52,000, economic developers have leveraged that impact to address education, housing, health care, child care and income tax exemptions to make their communities more attractive to active-duty enlistees and veterans, who can land lucrative jobs at the defense-related research labs or other local businesses after they retire. “A veteran’s income is approximately 164 percent of a nonveteran. So, one of the benefits to creating a pro-military environment is that veterans stay,” spending their incomes locally, says Rich Glover, director of the state’s Office of Military Planning.

Arizona, home to seven Army, Marine and Air Force installations, has set its sights overseas for opportunities that complement its long-standing military presence. The state’s Defense and Industry Coalition recently inked a deal with Ukraine offering defense-related industrial and research resources to rebuild that nation while it’s still in conflict with Russia. And, in Colorado Springs, where the military accounts for 44 percent of the community’s economic activity, officials last year secured the headquarters for U.S. Space Command, which is responsible for providing satellite-based services to the U.S. military and protecting those assets from foreign threats.

While Utah lost some assets through BRAC, state and local boosters saved Hill by playing up its Intercontinental Ballistic Missile maintenance mission and sprawling test and training range neighboring Dugway Proving Ground in the west desert, preserving over 22,000 jobs. Since that time, the state’s congressional delegation has shored up Hill’s future by expanding that base’s test and training range to 2.3 million acres and making the base headquarters for the Air Force’s Sentinel program, a $100 billion initiative to upgrade the nation’s ground-based nuclear missile system.

The program is projected to generate 2,500 jobs to the northern Utah communities surrounding the base. But those taking those jobs will be working and living in an area that has been an EPA Superfund site since 1987 and will remain under that status for at least 50 more years as the Air Force regularly samples the air in residents’ homes for gasses emitted from polluted groundwater, poisoned by decades of chemicals and waste from aircraft maintenance.

“I understand government is big industry in New Mexico. But we end up being hostage to these big military contractors.”

The West, where half of the nation’s 20 nuclear weapons facilities are located, hasn’t always been so welcoming to that distinction. In the early 1980s, a coalition of religious leaders, peace advocates and ranchers halted the MX missile program, which would have based 550 nuclear missiles in the Great Basin straddling Utah and Nevada. Public opposition to the idea of putting a bullseye on western Utah in a nuclear conflict grew loud, and the death knell for MX sounded when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a press release on May 5, 1981, from its Salt Lake City headquarters, directly opposing nuclear war and the environmental damage that construction of the missile system would cause to the area and its people.

“Our fathers came to the western area to establish a base from which to carry the gospel of peace to the people of the earth,” the statement from the church’s governing First Presidency concluded. “It is ironic, and a denial of the very essence of that gospel, that in this same general area there should be constructed a mammoth weapons system potentially capable of destroying much of civilization.”

Five months later, the Reagan administration scrapped the MX Missile program completely, realizing that without backing from the church’s leadership, gaining public support for the missile basing system would be unattainable, writes former West Point historian and retired Lt. Col. Sherman L. Fleek in the book “The Mormon Military Experience.”

Fittingly, the MX rejection coincided with mounting concern and evidence of adverse health effects from radioactive fallout through the government’s nuclear weapons testing in southern Nevada during the 1950s. Residents had been proud to play a part in staying a step ahead of the Soviets in a global arms race. And there were huge economic benefits to hundreds of thousands of people coming to Las Vegas, where they would live while working at the test site 65 miles to the north. “There was a tradition of people in the West embracing and benefiting greatly from huge federal projects,” says Andy Kirk, a University of Nevada at Las Vegas history professor. “This was just another huge federal project that was going to bring jobs and money.”

Kirk, a principal investigator for the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project, explains that pride and excitement turned to worry in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as those living downwind of the testing in areas of Nevada, Arizona and Utah, along with uranium miners digging up the radioactive uranium for the bombs, reported unusually high rates of illness and death suffered by people and livestock. By the late 1970s, victims mobilized to bring their case to Congress and the courts.

“We liked to play under the trees and shake this (radioactive) fallout onto our heads and our bodies, thinking that we were playing in the snow. Then I would go home and eat,” Gloria Gregerson shared at a southern Utah town meeting convened by Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch in 1979. As a teen, Gregerson developed ovarian, stomach and skin cancer, as well as leukemia. When she died in 1983 at age 42, she was among 1,100 plaintiffs who had sued the government for negligence in not disclosing the risks of the radioactive fallout from the testing.

The downwinders eventually lost their case against the government, as did a group of sheep ranchers, who blamed nuclear testing for the death and deformities of livestock in southern Utah. But Congress couldn’t ignore the press coverage of the trials, congressional hearings and government reports like “The Forgotten Guinea Pigs,” backing up allegations that the officials had misled residents. Elected leaders responded with the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to compensate those harmed.

Thirty-four years later, victims are still relying on the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which has doled out $2.6 billion in reparations to downwinders to date. For Cordova and those within the consortium, it’s a touchstone of hope that expansion for reparations is possible. In December, Congress finally voted on a defense spending bill that included the fate of RECA. But Cordova’s 20-year pursuit was dashed. Republican House leaders demanded the program’s expansion be eliminated in order to pass the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act. Instead of the consortium winning payments up to $100,000 and health care coverage for victims, it came away with nothing.

Press releases coming from New Mexico’s congressional delegation were a mix of disappointment for their state’s downwinders not qualifying for RECA payments and pride for the billions allocated that will fund military installations and private contractors to generate an estimated $14 billion in economic activity in the state — an apt parallel to the generations-long dilemma of what the real cost-benefit ratio of the military’s presence in the West is. New Mexico Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez, a Democrat, decried GOP House leadership’s decision to drop the compensation expansion as “morally bankrupt.” She then explained her own vote: “I supported the final version of the bipartisan bill in spite of this disgraceful omission because it secures investments in our national defense and service members — including those serving throughout New Mexico.”

Cordova doesn’t fault the state’s congressional leaders for supporting the defense package, despite it leaving the downwinders empty-handed. She understands how important the military-industrial complex is to the state’s economy. As the owner of a roofing company, she has refused to do business with local military bases or government contractors since 2005. It’s cost her. But she doesn’t expect others who support her cause to make the same sacrifice. “We have found other places to invest, but for many, many people their only option for making a living is to work for the government. I understand government is big industry in New Mexico,” Cordova acknowledges. “But we end up being hostage to these big military contractors.” It’s difficult to see how much money is being pumped into and out of the economy to maintain a military-industrial complex, without any of that money coming back to keep the land and people who make it all possible healthy. Cordova continues to work with Congress to extend the expiration date of the compensation program. Earlier this month, the Senate passed an expansion of RECA. She hopes that one day there will be an understanding, from the top down, that investing in the defense industry and appropriations to clean up and correct the problems that spending can create are not mutually exclusive. “We’ve got to get people to understand that these are closely linked.”

This story appears in the March 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.