- Soldiers now fighting in Iraq are being exposed to battlefield
hazards that have been associated with the Gulf War Syndrome that afflicts
a quarter-million veterans of the 1991 war, said a former Central Command
Army officer in Operation Desert Storm. Part of the threat today includes
greater exposure to battlefield byproducts of depleted uranium munitions
used in combat, said the former officer and other Desert Storm veterans
trained in battlefield health and safety. Their concern comes as troops
are engaged in the most intensive fighting of the Iraq War. Complicating
efforts to understand any potential health impacts is the Pentagon's failure,
acknowleged in House hearings on March 25, to follow a 1997 law requiring
baseline medical screening of troops before and after deployment. "People
are sick over there already," said Dr. Doug Rokke, former director
of the Army's depleted uranium (DU)project. "It's not just uranium.
You've got all the complex organics and inorganics [compounds] that are
released in those fires and detonations. And they're sucking this in....
You've got the whole toxic wasteland."
- In 1991, Desert Storm Commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf
asked Rokke to oversee the environmental clean up and medical care of soldiers
injured in friendly fire incidents involving DU weapons. Rokke later wrote
the DU safety rules adopted by the Army, but was relieved of subsequent
duties after he criticized commanders for not following those rules and
not treating exposed troops from NATO's war in Yugoslavia. Rokke said today's
troops have been fighting on land polluted with chemical, biological and
radioactive weapon residue from the first Gulf War and its aftermath. In
this setting, troops have been exposed not only to sandstorms, which degrade
the lungs, but to oil fires and waste created by the use of uranium projectiles
in tanks, aircraft, machine guns and missiles. "That's why people
started getting sick right away, when they started going in months ago
with respiratory, diarrhea and rashes -- horrible skin conditions,"
Rokke said. "That's coming back on and they have been treating them
at various medical facilities. And one of the doctors at one of the major
Army medical facilities -- he and I talk almost every day -- and he is
madder than hell." DU, or Uranium-238, is a byproduct of making nuclear
reactor fuel. It is denser and more penetrating than lead, burns as it
flies, and breaks up and vaporizes on impact -- which makes it very deadly.
Each round fired by a tank shoots one 10-pound uranium dart that, in addition
to destroying targets, scatters into burning fragments and creates a cloud
of uranium particles as small as one micron. Particles that small can enter
lung tissue and remain embedded.
- Efforts to contact Pentagon officials for comment at
the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses and officials
at the Veterans Administration who deal with DU-related illness were not
returned. What Rokke and other outspoken Desert Storm veterans fear is
today's troops are being exposed to many of the same battlefield conditions
that they believe are responsible for Gulf War Syndrome. These illnesses
have left 221,000 veterans on medical disability and another 51,000 seeking
that status from the Veterans Administration as of May 2002. "Yeah,
I do fear that," said Denise Nichols, a retired Air Force Major and
nurse, who served in Desert Storm and is now vice-chairman of the National
Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition. "We're sitting here watching
it happen again and wondering if the soldiers are going to be taken care
of any better [than after the 1991 war]."
- Nichols' lobbying sparked Congress to pass a 1997 law
requiring the Pentagon to conduct a physical and take blood samples of
all soldiers before and after deployment. In a House hearing on March 25
on that requirement, Public Law 105-85, Pentagon officials said the military
had not conducted those baseline tests for Iraq War soldiers, saying they
asked troops to fill out a questionnaire instead. "Their actions not
to fully implement PL 105-85 and go beyond the words of the law, show their
lack of caring for the human beings that do the work and place their lives
in jeopardy for this nation," Nichols said in testimony submitted
to the Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) the Government Reform-National Security
Subcommittee chairman, who held the hearing and told military officials
they were "not meeting" the letter or spirit of the law. "I
hope that when the soldiers return that the standard tactic of blaming
PTSD [Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder] or stress will never be allowed to
block soldiers from getting fast answers to what is happening to their
- Nichols testified. "If you don't look, you don't
find," Rokke said, commenting on the Pentagon's failure to assess
soldiers' health. "If you don't find, there is no correlation. If
there's no correlation, there's no liability." Both Rokke and Nichols
says health problems associated with DU exposure are likely to be more
widespread in the current war than in 1991. That's because the military
relies more heavily on DU munitions today and there's more fighting in
this war. When Rokke sees images of soldiers and civilians driving past
burning Iraqi trucks that have been destroyed by tank fire, or soldiers
or civilians inspecting buildings destroyed by missiles, and these people
are not wearing respirators, he says they all risk radiation poisoning,
which can have lifelong consequences. "He's going to be sick,"
Rokke said. "He's supposed to have full respiratory protection on.
That's required by his Common Task [training manual]. And when he comes
by and he's downwind, he supposed to have a radio-bio-assay. That's urine,
feces and nasal swabs within 24 hours."
- When asked why those protocols -- part of the DU rules
he wrote for the Army -- apparently aren't being followed, Rokke said the
military doesn't want to lose the use of DU weapons. He said as early as
1991 the military issued memos saying DU ammo could become "politically
unacceptable and thus be deleted" if health and environmental impacts
were emphasized. Outside the military, medical journals say the jury is
still out on DU's potential health impacts. Although the government says
it is safe, medical researchers say not enough is understood about DU's
acute and long-term effects, wrote Brian Vastag in the April 2 edition
of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Veterans disagree,
however, saying the military has known about low-level radiation poisoning
since the development of atomic weapons in the 1940s.
- They say the military will not disclose its DU test results
and that it's almost impossible to do medical research while combat rages.
Meanwhile, in political circles, the White House has dismissed DU issues.
On March 18, it issued "Apparatus of Lies," a report which, among
other things, attacked claims that DU fallout from Operation Desert Storm
has caused higher disease rates among Iraqi citizens. Those claims were
part of "Saddam's disinformation and propaganda" campaign, the
White House said
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