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The victims of DU

March 7, 2003 | Page 5

WHEN HE tries to justify his war on Iraq, George W. Bush never fails to talk about Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons. What a hypocrite. During the 1991 Gulf War, Bush's own father didn't hesitate to use a weapon that is still wrecking lives--on both sides--a dozen years later.

Exposure to the debris of exploded munitions made from depleted uranium (DU) has caused an epidemic of cancers and other diseases in Iraq. Then there are the U.S. soldiers who were exposed to DU--and still suffer the consequences. But you won't hear George Bush or the Pentagon talk about these victims.

JOHN GREEN reports on this continuing horror from the 1991 Gulf War.

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DURING THE 1991 Gulf War, U.S. forces fired some 320 tons of DU projectiles as part of their blitzkrieg against the poorly armed Iraqi military. The Pentagon used DU munitions because the strength of the metal casing--which comes from a waste product in the process of making enriched uranium for nuclear power--makes them capable of obliterating most armored targets. Though supposedly safe to handle, on impact, projectiles made from depleted uranium create a plume of breathable radioactive dust.

Even today, the killing grounds in Iraq are littered with DU: contaminated Iraqi tanks, tons of shrapnel and discarded U.S. equipment. Researchers believe that DU has entered the water supply, too, putting more people at risk.

Organizations such as Voices in the Wilderness have documented the resulting spike in cancer rates among Iraqi children. This health crisis has been compounded by the fact that United Nations sanctions against Iraq have left the country's hospitals running critically short of the most basic medical supplies.

But Iraqis aren't the only Gulf War victims of DU. Officially, the Pentagon acknowledges that 31 U.S. combat vehicles were contaminated by DU in friendly-fire incidents during the Gulf War. Yet showing how little the Defense Department cares about the lives of its own troops, the men ordered to clean up contaminated U.S. vehicles were given nothing more than dust masks and surgical gloves to protect them.

The real level of exposure to DU among U.S. soldiers is almost certainly higher than the Pentagon admits. And the official response has been to deny links between the radioactive metal and any illness. In fact, the Pentagon is only monitoring some 200 veterans exposed to DU for health problems.

DU is now considered one of the most likely causes of the still unexplained Gulf War Syndrome that afflicts many veterans. Of the 722,000 Americans who fought in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, the Department of Defense says that more than 150,000 troops have been affected by some form of Gulf War Syndrome--including 9,500 U.S. soldiers who died as a result of their illnesses.

According to the Pentagon's own study released last year, Gulf War veterans are twice as likely to develop amyotropic lateral sclerosis--Lou Gehrig's disease. Other studies show that Gulf War vets are more likely to suffer symptoms of chronic fatigue and neurological and joint disorders.

There are many other possible causes of these illnesses aside from DU--exposure to biological weapons, pesticides, toxic smoke from oil-well fires and untested vaccines. Yet who knows for sure? At every step, the Pentagon has tried to sweep the problem under the rug.

"That's part of war," Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, deputy director of deployment health support at the Pentagon, told MSNBC in January. "That's part of the risk of being in the military. There are multiple ways of getting killed."

Kilpatrick's attitude may seem unusually callous, but the reality is that the U.S. government has always used soldiers as cannon fodder--subjecting them not only to the hazards of war, but also using them as human guinea pigs whenever convenient.

During the Vietnam War, for example, while rich brats like George Bush were buying their way into cushy spots in the National Guard to avoid the draft, thousands of working-class soldiers--not to mention countless Vietnamese civilians--were exposed to Agent Orange and other defoliants. With this track record, why should anyone trust the Pentagon when it claims to value the lives of its soldiers?

A new war on Iraq will not only cause more horrors in a country already devastated by a decade of U.S. war. It will wreck the lives of unknown thousands of young U.S. soldiers.

"They're trying to keep DU quiet"

JERRY WHEAT was a 23-year-old Army specialist serving in 47th Cavalry as a scout during the first Gulf War. His Bradley armored vehicle was struck twice by friendly fire that was laced with DU.

HOW WERE you exposed to DU, and what has that meant?

I WAS hit with over 25 pieces of depleted uranium shrapnel. Afterwards, I got sick and have had trouble ever since. It stores in the kidney and the bones. I had a tumor removed from my left arm. I've had abdominal problems. I lived and breathed that stuff for a quite a while. Even after I was hit, I was taken back into my vehicle and slept in my clothes.

I asked to keep the shrapnel when the doctors removed it, though they conveniently lost it. But they missed some pieces, which I removed myself. I squeezed the metal from the back of my head and my shoulder like a pimple when it worked its way to the surface. Some of it is still radioactive to this day.

I had a tumor in my left arm; it was removed from within the bone, which is where DU accumulates. It wasn't cancerous, but the Veterans' Administration (VA) said they'd take it out anyway. When have you heard of the VA offering to do surgery on a non-cancerous, non-military related tumor?

When I first came back, I lost several jobs because I was sick as hell. I felt like I was going to die--these cramps felt like they were ripping my insides out. My healthy, 3-month-old son developed respiratory problems and had to go to the hospital. He had been fine until I brought home my gear with DU dust all over it.

I used a Geiger counter at a museum to measure the shrapnel recently.

HOW HAS the government responded?

I DIDN'T even know the shrapnel in my body was radioactive until my dad told me. He was an industrial hygienist technician at Los Alamos. He asked me to send him some of the shrapnel I still had, and when he got it, he said, "Hey, did you know that stuff was DU?" I said no. No one ever told me anything.

The government is trying to keep DU health hazards quiet. One year, they sent a group of people hit with DU to a lab in Las Vegas. That lab couldn't tell the difference between the depleted uranium and the naturally occurring uranium in our bodies. Potentially, thousands of people were exposed to depleted uranium, and the Pentagon still hasn't come forward.

And Iraqi children are being born deformed and have high rates of cancer--higher than you could imagine. My friends have gone over and documented it. The government said it would provide health care for wounded vets and victims of DU, but the government hasn't done anything for us.

I don't agree with us being over there at all at this point. We had our chance 12 years ago and didn't take it. I don't agree with going over there for oil. I'm completely against it. A whole lot of people are going to die for oil. They want to start a new war, and they haven't taken care of the vets from the last war.

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