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 health,"
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.
Steven Rosenfeld is a commentary editor and audio producer for TomPaine.com.
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