Far from the radioactive battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, another war is being waged. This war, over the use of depleted uranium (DU) weapons, is being fought between the military top brass and the men who understand the dangers of DU: former military doctors and nuclear scientists.
This war is for the truth about uranium weapons, and the consequences of their use, and has been waged for more than 13 years—since the U.S. government first used DU weapons against Iraq. Most Americans, however, are unaware of this historic struggle, because the Pentagon has used its power to prevent information about DU from reaching the public.
John Hanchette, editor of USA Today from 1991 to 2001, in a recent interview with anti-DU activist Leuren Moret, said he had written several news stories about the effects of DU on gulf wars veterans. Every time he was ready to publish a story about the devastating illnesses afflicting soldiers, however, the Pentagon called USA Today and pressured him not to publish the story. Hanchette was eventually replaced as editor and now teaches journalism to college students.
Dr. Doug Rokke, 37-year Army veteran and former director of the Army’s Depleted Uranium Project, has become an outspoken “warrior for peace” in the war against DU weapons. Rokke is fighting for medical care for all people exposed to DU: active soldiers, veterans and civilians, including Iraqis, and for “remediation” or cleansing of all DU-contaminated land.
“Anyone who demands medical care and environmental remediation faces ongoing and blatant retaliation,” Rokke told AFP. “Anybody who speaks up—their career ends.”
During Gulf War I, Rokke was theater health physicist with the 12th Preventive Medicine Command professional staff and served on three special operations teams. Rokke and members of his teams were exposed to large amounts of uranium during recovery of U.S. tanks and armored vehicles mistakenly hit by DU weapons.
Today, Rokke is fighting to get the Pentagon to abide by its regulations regarding care for individuals exposed to uranium and remediation of contaminated areas.
The military records of one of Rokke’s comrades, who suffers from the effects of DU exposure, have been completely “gutted” from Army archives, Rokke told AFP.
“They [defense officials] willfully ignore existing Department of Defense directives that require prompt and effective medical care be provided to ‘all’ exposed individuals,” Rokke says.
Rokke points to a U.S. Army Medical Command memo dated April 29, 2004, from Lt. Gen. James B. Peake about medical management of Army personnel exposed to DU. The memo, which says “all personnel with actual or potential exposures to DU will be identified, assessed, treated (if needed), and assigned a potential exposure level (I, II, or III),” reiterates the U.S. Army regulations originally written by Rokke in 1991, he said.
“A radio bioassay has to be done within a few days of exposure,” Rokke said. “This means nasal and pharyngeal swabs being taken and 24-hour urine and fecal analysis.
“Today,” Rokke writes, “although medical problems continue to develop, medical care is denied or delayed for all uranium-exposed casualties while Defense Department and British Ministry of Defense officials continue to deny any correlation between uranium exposure and adverse health and environmental effects.”
Rokke said the individuals at the Department of Defense are engaged in a “criminal” conspiracy to deny the toxicity of DU weapons. “The lies by senior Defense Department officials are designed to sustain use of uranium munitions and avoid liability for adverse health and environmental effects,” he said. According to Rokke, a recent Gulf War Review reported that only 262 vets had been treated for DU poisoning through September 2003.
The military’s strategy of lies and concealment about DU began in March 1991, shortly after the first widespread combat use of DU weapons by the U.S. government in Iraq, Rokke said.
On March 1, 1991, Lt. Col. Michael V. Ziehmn of Los Alamos National Lab wrote a memo about the effectiveness of DU penetrators. The “future existence” of DU weapons should be ensured by active “proponency” by the Department of Defense, Ziehmn wrote.
“If proponency is not garnered, it is possible that we stand to lose a valuable combat capability,” Ziehmn wrote. “I believe we should keep this sensitive issue at mind when after-action reports are written.”
When American Free Press began this series on DU weapons, the U.S. Army alerted the Centers for Disease Control, an Atlanta-based agency of the Department of Health and Human Services.
“The CDC is going to do a whitewash on DU,” Marion Fulk, a former nuclear chemical physicist at Lawrence Livermore Lab, said. Fulk told AFP he had received this information directly from CDC officials.
AFP asked Stephanie C. Creel of the CDC about its position on the toxicity of DU. Creel said the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) on-line “fact sheet” would provide the “most in-depth information” on the subject.
The ATSDR fact sheet: “The radiation damage from exposure to high levels of natural or depleted uranium are [sic] not known to cause cancer.”
“No apparent public health hazard,” the CDC assessment of Livermore lab, published June 29, said about local exposure levels to tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, Fulk said.
“It’s nonsense,” Fulk said. “It’s been dumped all around the area. It goes through glass and steel.”
Depleted uranium is a misnomer, according to Fulk. Depleted uranium, mostly U-238, is uranium that has had the naturally occurring fissile material, U-235, removed. DU is very radioactive, however. While one gram of U-235 emits 81,000 alpha particles per second, U-238 emits 12,000 per second. These high-energy particles coming from DU particles lodged in the body cause the most damage, according to Fulk and others.
“Depleted uranium dust that is inhaled gets transferred from the lungs to the regional lymph nodes, where they can bombard a small number of cells in their immediate vicinity with intense alpha radiation,” said Dr. Asaf Durakovic, former Pentagon expert on DU.
Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), a defense contractor in San Diego, published an extensive article about the dangers of DU six months before President George H.W. Bush waged war against Iraq in 1991.
“Under combat conditions, the most exposed individuals are probably the ground troops [who] re-enter a battlefield following the exchange of armor-piercing (DU) munitions,” SAIC published in its July 1990 magazine.
“Short-term effects of high doses can result in death, while long-term effects of low doses have been implicated in cancer,” SAIC wrote.
AFP submitted written questions to the U.S. Army Medical Command asking how the Army can claim that DU exposure is harmless when military documents have stressed its lethal toxicity.
Mark A. Melanson, of the Army’s Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine in Aberdeen, Md., responded in an email: “The two positions are not opposing. As with all potentially hazardous material, the amount determines the risk.”
Melanson wrote that the Army was complying with its own regulations regarding medical care for DU exposure, saying: “Soldiers are being screened by completing the post deployment health questionnaire upon demobilization. Troops identified as being at potential risk for DU exposure are directed to provide a urine bioassay for analysis.”
Rokke said: “That is too late. Hence they find a way out.”
AFP repeatedly tried to speak to Melanson about the quantity of DU that the Army considered hazardous. He did not return phone calls.
“An individual could [safely] breathe in up to a gram per year every year for 50 years,” Melanson recently told The New York Daily News.
“That’s absolutely absurd,” Fulk said. Fulk said the number of alpha particle emissions from a gram of DU lodged in the body over a year would be about the same as one-10th of all the cells in his body.
The inhaled DU particles have a tendency to bind with phosphate in the human body, found in the bones and the DNA. The alpha particle being emitted to the cells nearby “is doing the dirty work,” Fulk said.
Painful breathing and respiratory problems are the first and most common symptoms of DU inhalation, Rokke said. Dr. Janette Sherman told AFP she met a 31-year-old female former soldier at a Maryland veteran’s hospital who had recently served in Kuwait. Sherman, a toxicologist, was shocked when the young woman told her that she required a lung transplant.