Is the Pentagon giving our soldiers cancer?

With virtually no public oversight, radioactive weapons have replaced conventional weapons as the cornerstone of American military might. The U.S. military's deadliest munitions are now packed with depleted uranium, which incinerates tanks on impact. Whenever U.S. troops go to war, depleted uranium — radioactive waste left over from nuclear weapons production and nuclear reactors — supplies the "shock and awe." But soldiers and civilians alike say the radioactive ammo is making them sick.

In both Iraq wars, and in Afghanistan, the U.S. military used depleted uranium (DU). The DU in "hot rounds" is pyrophoric and burns through steel at 5,000 degrees Celsius. Flaming radioactive particles blow off in every direction, igniting fuel tanks and whatever explosives the target might be carrying.

During the first Gulf War in 1991, the military exploded as much as 320 tons of DU in the deserts of Iraq and Kuwait. Tank-killing DU rounds brought Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard to its knees in only four days. At the Pentagon, DU munitions quickly earned the nickname "silver bullet," and the Defense Department turned its attention to creating even more powerful DU weapons.

In the 2003 war on Iraq, DU projectiles were exploded not only in uninhabited deserts but also in urban centers such as Baghdad — a city the size of Detroit. The shells were fired from airships, gunships, tanks, and Bradley fighting vehicles. Upon impact with their targets, they spewed clouds of microscopic uranium dust particles into the air. The particles, lofted far from the battlefield on the wind, will emit low-level radiation for 4.5-billion years. The DU also contains traces of plutonium and americium, which are far more radioactive than uranium. Some doctors fear that long-term exposure to such radiation could eventually cause lung and bone cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma — a fatal cancer of the immune system.

The Pentagon insists that the weapons pose no threat to U.S. soldiers or to non-combatants. "DU is not any more dangerous than dirt," declares Col. James Naughton, who recently retired after years as director of Army munitions. But a broad consortium of scientists, environmentalists, and human-rights activists — as well as thousands of U.S. soldiers who served in the Gulf in 1991 — cite mounting evidence that depleted uranium will cause suffering and death among civilians and soldiers alike long after the war's end.

Europeans are more acquainted with the DU controversy than Americans, in large part because a handful of Italian soldiers, most of whom were sent to Yugoslavia as peacekeepers when the Balkans conflict ended, developed leukemia. The U.S. used DU weapons in the Balkans in 1994 and 1995. When seven of the Italians died, and the deaths of at least nine other Balkan veterans were linked in news reports to DU exposure, anti-DU fervor rapidly swept across Europe.

In Geneva, the Human Rights Tribunal declared DU projectiles weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations has made its position on depleted uranium abundantly clear: Use of such weapons is illegal, because they continue to act after the war ends, they unduly damage the environment, and they are inhumane.

Iraqi civilians were exposed to low-level radiation from DU, and preliminary evidence indicates that the consequences have been devastating. Iraqi doctors, many of them specialists trained at eminent Western institutions, report twelve-fold increases in Iraqi cancer rates since the first Gulf War, as well as sharp rises in birth defects in southern Iraq, where much of the fighting took place. According to Iraqi doctors, some infants were born with one eye, or no brain, or without limbs.

The Pentagon says that only 900 of the 700,000 U.S. soldiers deployed during the 1991 Gulf War were exposed to DU. But scientists and military whistle-blowers who have studied the campaign say the number of soldiers exposed to DU dust and debris is closer to 300,000. And no one warned them of the hazard.

Within months of the war's end, thousands of Gulf War veterans began suffering from odd, nameless maladies, including hair loss, bleeding gums, memory loss, joint pain, incontinence, and disabling fatigue. In 1992, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked the congressional General Accounting Office to study American tanks that had been hit by DU rounds during the war. GAO investigators learned that most soldiers had never been informed by their superiors about the hazards of DU. The GAO's findings were summarized in the title of its report issued a year later: "Army Not Adequately Prepared to Deal with Depleted Uranium Contamination."

Military and civilian doctors agree that the host of ailments now known as Gulf War Syndrome were probably caused by a multitude of physical insults: vaccinations, pesticides, toxic solvents, and oil fires (which deposited a film in the nostrils so thick that soldiers relied on Popsicle sticks to remove it). But many of the diseases — including increased rates of lymphoma — are consistent with either radiation sickness or the toxicological effects of exposure to depleted uranium.

It will take years, if not decades, to determine how much of a role DU played in the illnesses, but the sheer magnitude of the problem could make the struggle over Agent Orange — the cancer-inducing chemical used to defoliate jungles during the Vietnam War — pale in comparison. More than 150,000 veterans of the first Gulf War are currently on medical disability, and another 50,000 have applied for benefits — nearly one-third of the entire fighting force. By comparison, nine percent of veterans from World War II and the Vietnam War applied for similar compensation.

The Bush administration has been adamant in denying a link between depleted uranium and the host of illnesses suffered by American troops. However, Han Kang, an environmental epidemiologist at the Department of Veterans Affairs, examined death certificates of Gulf War-era vets and discovered a thirty percent increase in lymphoma.

So far, the Veterans Administration has agreed to study only ninety soldiers who were exposed to DU. "There has been no cancer of bone or lungs," Michael Kilpatrick, the military's top spokesman on Gulf War Syndrome, told journalists a year ago. He added that the vets, twenty of whom carry DU fragments in their bodies, have suffered "no medical consequences of that depleted uranium exposure." He failed to mention that one of the vets had been diagnosed with lymphoma, and that another vet had a bone tumor. He also neglected to mention that every vet in the study continued to excrete depleted uranium in their urine nine years after their exposure — evidence that DU is present in their organs and tissues.

"The Pentagon is lying," says Dan Fahey, a former Navy officer deployed in the Gulf in 1991. "This is the precedent that has been established with atomic veterans and with Vietnam veterans. If they're not going to let us know what they know, they should give the benefit of the doubt to the veteran. But they don't want anyone telling them what weapons they can and cannot use."

Left to its own devices, the military has made clear that it considers depleted uranium worth any risk it poses. "The military benefits are so much larger compared to any health problems," Naughton says. "We feel we have to use it. It's radioactive — I wish it wasn't, but I can't change the laws of physics. The issue is, once you've had the hit, once you're involved in the catastrophic failure of the tank, did the crew survive long enough to really care whether it was tungsten or DU that hit them? Anyone who does should count themselves damn lucky. I'm sure every one of them would thank God that they lived forty years to contract lymphoma."

– edited from Rolling Stone, October 2, 2003
PeaceMeal March/April 2004

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