The first thing that came - as he crouched down on his knees, huddled between fellow soldiers in the trench - was the light.
"It was like a bushel basket of flashbulbs," Jimmy Bezdek said. "You can't block it, not even if you cover your eyes."
Before the test bomb dropped, he realized that he was kneeling over a high spot in the trench - a hole just 4,000 feet from the blast site. He tried to get the soldier next to him to trade places, but the short fellow from New York wasn't going to swap with the tall Texan from West.
In the breast pocket of his fatigues was a love letter from Rose, the woman he had met a few weeks before, the woman who would become the love of his life.
Once the nuclear bomb went off, the vacuum created by its detonation took about 13 seconds to roll out over the desert floor and come back, pulling everything in its path. During that rush of energy, you didn't even poke your head up, Bezdek said, lest you risk being pulled in, too.
The soldiers spent weeks setting up the test site - putting sheep in sample foxholes, building a house to blow up, bringing in an automobile.
But once out there, once in the trench, you knew you were on your own, he said.
Leaning against the earthen wall, he felt the ground shaking violently. He heard the debris swirling in the air. When he stood, the funnel was straight up. In the sky, the mushroom cloud's vibrant colors made the most beautiful sight, he said.
They were supposed to rush to the blast zone afterward, part of their training in atomic warfare.
"The first thing I saw was that bird, burned on one side, trying to fly," he said. "The yucca plants were burned on one side."
The radioactive fallout was more than the military had bargained for. They had to get out, he said.
That was April 1953, Exercise Desert Rock V, part of a string of atomic testing in Yucca Flat, Nev. Yucca Flat has since been dubbed one of the most irradiated spots on earth. Nearly two decades later, during the Baneberry test in 1970, radiation vented into the atmosphere after a shaft plug failed during the underground detonation of a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb.
When Bezdek turned in his radiation badge each day, the effects of high levels of exposure weren't well-understood. He was drafted into the U.S. Army after he graduated from North Texas State College in 1950. He joined a new program with scientific and professional personnel, attending a chemical, biological and radiological school and learning about calculating exposure levels. The soldiers were cautioned that much of what they were learning was secret, he said.
As early as the late 1950s, some atomic veterans, as they call themselves, were becoming increasingly concerned about health problems. But they weren't allowed to go public, Bezdek said.
He kept in touch with some of his Army buddies. They developed unusual health problems. Those that were able to have children - some were made sterile by the exposure - often had children with unusual health problems. He recently heard from one who got cancer, but then they lost touch.
In the 1980s, news reports emerged showing that military officials had falsified soldiers' exposure records. Atomic veterans pushed for recognition of their problems and appropriate benefits.
A retired UNT math education professor, the 82-year-old Denton resident isn't looking for assistance. But from time to time, he hears from others who have had trouble getting assistance, even after they've gotten sick. Federal officials took too long to recognize those casualties that came long after the war was over, he said.
Atomic veterans now have similar presumptive benefits to those that have been offered to other veterans who suffered exposures while serving, according to Paul Bastaich, of the Denton County Veterans Service Office.
The office assists veterans who've had specific exposures and qualify for extra benefits as a result. Similar to Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange, atomic veterans are entitled to presumptive benefits, Bastaich said.
Exposure itself isn't a disabling condition. But veterans don't have to prove that a qualifying illness - cancer, for example - was caused by the exposure. They only need prove that they were exposed.
Similarly, if a veteran dies and the cause of death is recognized as possibly due to exposure, the surviving spouse can receive benefits, Bastaich said. Then, the spouse must prove the exposure.
Coming up with proof can be tough for Army veterans, Bezdek said. His record of service, along with records for many Army veterans who served between 1912 and 1959, burned in a St. Louis warehouse fire in 1973.
Bezdek kept many of his papers from his time in the service, including his notes from the Army classes. He picked up newspapers with articles about the nuclear testing when he and his buddies went into Las Vegas from the desert at night. His hometown newspaper ran the Army's news release about his training and participation in the nuclear test blast.
Bastaich said even a letter of appreciation for serving in a qualifying event can serve as proof of exposure. The Denton office has helped others with atomic-era claims, although they are far less common than other exposure claims because the veterans are in their 80s and 90s now.
"We've had a few that were on ships in the area of a test blast and were checking on radiation exposure after the detonation," Bastaich said.
The world's latest nuclear disaster, the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, underscores what officials need to know to protect workers and residents from high doses of radiation. More could be known about the long-term impact of radiation exposure if Army records had not been burned or falsified, and if health effects had been tracked, Bezdek said.
Defense records show that more than 2,500 troops participated in Exercise Desert Rock V.
"They missed a golden opportunity to follow a large group of guys," he said.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.