While state legislators in Louisiana and Connecticut are calling for extra measures to protect U.S. troops from combat-related health hazards, local military sources are reluctant to talk openly regarding the possible dangers faced by the approximately 1,780 Idahoans currently serving in either Afghanistan or Iraq. At stake is exposure of those soldiers to radioactive, heavy metals from munitions made out of depleted uranium, described by both advocates and objectors as "the ultimate in battlefield weaponry."
Depleted uranium (uranium oxide, or DU) is a cheap waste-product of nuclear reactors, but is preferred as "the silver bullet" in modern combat operations. With its high density and explosive combustibility, the U.S. military has incorporated DU into105- and 120-mm tank rounds, .50 caliber machine gun shells, cruise missiles, cluster bombs, so-called "bunker busters," and even M-16 and pistol shells. The Pentagon has admitted to utilizing 320 tons of DU during the first Gulf War, at least twice that much while bombing Kosovo, at least 1,000 tons in Afghanistan and another 2,000 tons so far in Operation Iraqi Freedom. DU munitions are currently employed in counter-insurgency efforts, to destroy apartment buildings, shelters and other structures, but the legality of such use has long been questioned by the United Nations in light of various international treaties and war conventions.
Complex health problems for troops and civilians exposed to DU have been linked to three basic characteristics of this weaponry. First, aside from U-234, U-235 and U-238, the heavy metals in DU include trace amounts of plutonium, neptunium and other transuranic substances. DU waste releases alpha, beta and gamma radiation for some 4.5 billion years. Secondly, since a billion DU particles fit on a pinhead, DU dust cannot be filtered out by standard issue protective masks. Finally, because it is not soluable in water, DU permanently lodges in bones, organs and seminal/vaginal fluids and is not easily eliminated by kidney function.
During the heated mid-1990s debates about Gulf War Syndrome, DU was often alleged to contribute to breathing impairments, dizziness, kidney stones, vision loss, skin rashes and cancers, lymphoma, neurological and psychological disorders including depression, sexual dysfunction and birth defects in the offspring of combat veterans. Even with considerable controversy among the experts about such links, the Army Surgeon General's current orders require a urine bioassay, monitoring and tracking for "all personnel with actual or potential exposures to DU."
Officials contacted by BW at the Idaho National Guard and Boise VA Hospital stated they were "ignorant" about DU, or referred us to Department of Defense Web sites. The only local source to comment was Jacques Chung Hee, who served for 25 years as a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. He currently works as a service officer for the Idaho Division of Veterans Services, helping veterans process claims for combat-related injuries. Chung Hee recalled being exposed to both DU and other "biological and chemical and environmental hazards" during the first Gulf War. During an interview conducted two years ago, he recalled being tested by the Air Force prior to deployment to Iraq, and receiving an exemplary health profile. After returning home, he began experiencing debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, constipation, chronic headaches and fevers, none of which VA physicians could diagnose or treat. But in the course of dealing with veterans with similar ailments, Chung Hee read about DU and started researching the topic in-depth--despite denials from doctors reluctant to perform tests. When pushed, VA doctors referred him to a Department of Defense study at Johns Hopkins University hospital, which did not return phone messages to either Chung Hee or BW.
In a recent e-mail interview with BW, Chung Hee stated no returning Iraq or Afghan veterans have yet complained to him of DU-related symptoms. While he still believed a combination of exposures to be responsible for the dramatic decline in his own health, he carefully wrote, "I can't speak for others but as me, as one of those who was exposed not only to DU during Desert Shield/Desert Storm 1991, but also to biological and chemical and environmental hazards." He also noted that the Air Force has announced plans to change previous practices in regards to "recording medical conditions before and after any type of deployment in the Persian Gulf due to lessons learned from Desert Shield/Desert Storm 1991."
He acknowledged the possibility that "some veterans are still asking for answers, some want medical treatment and others are still wondering what went wrong and who to turn to. There are some Persian Gulf War veterans who have passed on since we last talked (in May 2003). There are still some Persian Gulf War [veterans] who are suffering out there and who have no answers to their medical conditions and have not come in to see any Service Officers to file a VA claim."
Alerted by local officials to BW's interest, VA spokesman in Los Angeles David Bayard contacted us for an interview. Bayard said he was familiar with veterans attributing their health problems to DU, but added, "I don't know that any of the research has indicated that is in fact the case." He cited one ongoing longitudinal study, saying "the preliminary results from that have not shown any adverse health effects from DU. I know that people have theories but I'm only looking at the science of it." Bayard alluded to studies referenced on the Department of Defense Web site, including a meta-study conducted by the Rand Corporation that determined no convincing link between DU and kidney disease. He also pointed out that no comprehensive DU studies have yet appeared in peer-reviewed journals.
Retired Major Doug Rokke, Ph.D., a former Pentagon DU expert, angrily dismissed what he calls "Pentagon junk science." He alleged in an interview with BW that the standard journals censor themselves on the topic, while "the VA moves to muzzle all internal dissent or questioning" about DU. Rokke pointed to Louisiana and Connecticut, two states that have considered legislation requiring the VA to provide all returning troops with screening for DU exposure. He said such tests go beyond mere urinalysis. "All we're asking is that the military obey its own regulations and orders. They're not doing that and soldiers are getting sick and dying. I've been there and my body is hot is hell from DU." Rokke said soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan "still aren't being informed, trained or protected" against DU, which even contaminates troop food and drinking water. Despite Pentagon assurances to the contrary, Rokke stated the military refuses to clean up "battlefields which are toxic soups to which all civilians and military are exposed."
Meanwhile, while the experts attack each other's credibility, returning Idaho soldiers may be given no more than a urine test and Bayard's offer to enroll them in a longitudinal study. Otherwise, they could find themselves in situations similar to that of Chung Hee, who despite his suffering, still attempts to maintain a positive attitude. "I am trying to live life as best as I can," he wrote. "I always say to myself that others are worse than me! I never mind things that are beyond my control but I make sure I can control my attitude! It has helped me live through these years."