Downwinders hope documentary influences Congress

EMMETT, Idaho (KBOI) -- The new documentary film "Jay and John Wayne: A Downwinder's Story" chronicles the plight of victims, so-called downwinders, exposed to fallout from above-ground nuclear testing in Nevada during the 1950s and 60s.

"When the bombs were detonated, the fallout fell on the grass," said Tona Henderson of Emmett. "The cows ate the grass, the radioactive fallout got into their milk, and it was consumed by people."

While the film is set in Enterprise, Utah, it strikes close to home for residents of Gem County, which the National Cancer Institute says was the fourth hardest-hit county in the country from the fallout.

"It was nine years ago that we here in Emmett found out about it and tried to do something," said Henderson. "I've seen a lot of people pass away."

Tona Henderson herself is a downwinder, born in 1960. She and almost everyone in her family has battled either cancer or thyroid disease.

She was interviewed by the film-makers and has watched with growing frustration as legislation to compensate downwinders at the same levels as military and defense workers fails to gain traction in Congress.

The hope is the movie being screened at the Frontier Theater in Emmett Saturday at 3 p.m. will convince the Doubting Thomases in the U.S. Senate and get the bill moving.

The men who made Napoleon Dynamite are the ones who made this film. It's been in the works 18 months, said Henderson.

John Wayne's name is invoked because, in 1956, the Duke shot the movie "The Conqueror" near Enterprise, Utah. Two hundred and twenty crew members worked on the film, and 90 contracted cancer. Forty-six died, including Wayne.

The government has apologized for the impact of the above-ground testing, but the downwinders say they deserve more than words.

Following the film, Sen. Mike Crapo, (R) Idaho, will speak with Idahoans and offer public comment on downwinder legislation at Computater's, 117 E. Main Street in Emmett.