Editor's note: Each week reporter Matthew Guerry shares the life stories of residents of Minnesota or the Dakotas who have died recently. Maybe you don't know them, but their stories are worth knowing. If you have a suggestion for someone to be featured, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 651-321-4314.
The men of the Third Marine Corps Provisional Atomic Exercise Brigade were sent into the desert and told to cover their eyes.
They were advised to turn and face away from the initial explosion so they could catch themselves should it knock them off their feet. A training exercise consisting of an airlift and assaults on target objectives could then begin, one meant to determine the best practices for combat supported by nuclear weapons.
It was March 22, 1955. Leo Lenzen, one of the 2,300 officers and enlisted men comprising the brigade, would not turn 18 for another week.
"My father's recollection, which is my favorite story about all of this, was the blast was so great that he could see every single bone in his hands," Brenda Dallmann, Lenzen's daughter said. "He said it looked exactly like an X-ray."
For his participation in Operation Teapot, a series of nuclear tests that took place in southeast Nevada, Lenzen would join the ranks of the "atomic veterans." Approximately 550,000 service members and U.S. Department of Defense personnel were at one point estimated to belong to the cohort.
Some, like Lenzen, got the designation by taking part in nuclear tests. Others came to it by way of military service in Japan; American prisoners of war held in Japan at the end of World War II, as well as members of the U.S. forces occupying Hiroshima and Nagasaki around the same time are also considered atomic veterans.
To count himself among them, according to Dallmann, 52, of Duluth, Minn., was a point of pride for Lenzen, who died on Dec. 10, 2020 at St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth. He was 83.
Born to Raymond and Adeline Lenzen on March 29, 1937 in Hamel, Minn., Leo Lester Lenzen grew up in nearby Wayzata, where he attended high school. He spent his teenage years working and rooming on a farm there to support his family as his father lay seriously ill.
"He would go to the school from the farm," Dallmann said, and could visit home for Christmas "if he was lucky."
According to her mother Barbara Lenzen, Dallmann said, Leo Lenzen's enlistment was arranged by a family friend and prominent community member as a favor to his father. Out joy-riding with friends one night, Lenzen essentially acted as the getaway driver for a haystack burning that landed them all in trouble.
By agreeing to the arrangement his family friend worked out, Dallmann said, Lenzen got his father off the hook for what he'd done. He didn't finish high school as a result and instead earned his GED diploma in the service.
Enlisting toward the tail end of the Korean War, Lenzen was never deployed overseas. His post-military career included stints as a deputy sheriff, a General Motors service representative, a technical service representative for Amsoil, and as an aerial equipment demonstrator for Reachall and Altec, where he worked until retiring.
In 1959, Lenzen married Barbara Montague, with whom he had four children. The family moved to the Duluth area in the mid-1970s after Lenzen took up work with the Krenzen family car dealership.
He liked to drag race and, while at Amsoil years later, oversaw the development of the company's stock car driver sponsorship program. Described as "larger than life" by Dallmann, Lenzen enjoyed music — especially the songs of Marty Robbins — and loved to fish.
In 1995, following President Bill Clinton's announcement of an investigation into the atomic veterans' radiation exposure, as well as that of other individuals involved in nuclear tests, Lenzen began corresponding with the Pentagon. Congress had by then already enacted a compensation program for atomic veterans who developed certain types of cancer linked to radiation exposure.
According to correspondence shared with Forum News Service, officials estimate that Lenzen received a 0.570-rem dose of ionizing radiation the day he participated in Operation Teapot. (Scientists today prefer the sievert, which is equal to 100 rem, or roentgen equivalent man, as a unit of measurement for human radiation exposure.)
Lenzen's dose would be equivalent to approximately 5.7 millisieverts, roughly twice what U.S. residents receive each year from natural sources but less than a person would absorb from say, a chest CT scan.
"Based on our research to date, the average radiation dose received by the approximately 200,000 DoD test participants is about 0.6 rem," the Defense Department wrote to Lenzen in August 1995.
Lenzen never did develop any of the illnesses associated with radiation exposure, according to Dallmann, and died late last year of COVID-19. He was buried in the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Saginaw, Minn., following a military funeral service.
"It was what he deserved. And he deserved for people to know what he did, even though it might be a small speck, compared to what some service members give," Dallmann said.
Lenzen is survived by his former wife Barbara, sons Bruce and Paul Lenzen, daughter Brenda Dallmann, their spouses and by daughter-in-law Pam Lenzen. He was preceded in death by his eldest son, Robert Lenzen.
With his death, the number of living atomic veterans dwindled yet again. In mid-2019, the Pentagon estimated only 80,000 of the original half-million-plus were still alive.