In the years after World War II, thousands of British soldiers witnessed secret atomic blast tests conducted by the British government.

“Nuclear detonations, that was the defining point in my life,” Douglas Hern, a British soldier who experienced five nuclear bomb tests, told Vice News.

Of the nearly 20,000 soldiers who witnessed the detonations, only a few are still alive and the awesome devastation they beheld still haunts them to this day, both psychologically and physically.

“When the flash hit you, you could see the x-rays of your hands through your closed eyes,” he said. “Then the heat hit you, and that was as if someone my size had caught fire and walked through me. It was an experience that was unearthing. It was so strange. There were guys with bruises and broken legs. We couldn’t believe it. To say it was frightening is an understatement. I think it all shocked us into silence.”

“We were basically used as guinea pigs,” Hern added. “There’s no other word for it.”

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