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9. U.S. Troops Exposed To Depleted Uranium during Gulf War

Sources: MILITARY TOXICS PROJECT’S DEPLETED URANIUM CITIZENS’ NETWORK, Date: January 16, 1996 (release of report), Title: “Radioactive Battlefields of the 1990s: The United States Army’s Use of Depleted Uranium and its Consequences for Human Health and the Environment,” Authors: Pat Broudy, Grace Bukowski, Leonard Dietz, Dan Fahey, John Paul Hasko, Cathy Hinds, Damaica Lopez, Dolly Lymburner, Arjun Makhijani, Richard Ochs, Laura Olah, Coy Overstreet, Charles Sheehan Miles, Judy Scotnicki, and Nikki F Bas, Edited by Rebecca Solnit; MULTINATIONAL MONITOR, Date: January/February 1996, Title: “Radioactive Ammo Lays Them to Waste,” Author: Gary Cohen; SWORDS TO PLOWSHARES, Date: November 7, 1995 (presentation), Title: “Depleted Uranium: Objective Research and Analysis Required,” Author: Dan Fahey; THE VVA VETERAN, Date: March 1996, Title: “Depleted Uranium: One Man’s Weapon, Another Man’s Poison,” Author: Bill Triplett; NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER, Date: January 19, 1996, Title: “Depleted Uranium, First Used In Iraq, Deployed in Bosnia,” Author: Kathryn Casa

Depleted uranium (DU) weapons were used for the first time in a war situation in the Persian Gulf in 1991 and were hailed as a new and incredibly effective weapon by the Department of Defense. Since the Manhattan Project of World War 11, numerous government studies have indicated that while DU weapons are highly effective, they are still extremely toxic and need to be handled with special precautionary tools and protective gear.

Although army training manuals were written in the 1980s to warn tank crews and commanders of the dangers associated with DU rounds, the Pentagon failed to warn Gulf War troops of the dangers. The Defense Department did circulate a memo to Gulf War commanders that contained three key points: any vehicle or system struck by a DU penetrator can be assumed to be contaminated; personnel should avoid entering contaminated areas; and, if troops must enter contaminated areas, they should wear protective clothing. Unfortunately, this memo was written on March 7, 1991, eight days after the firing of weapons ceased in the Persian Gulf.

Without this knowledge, and without the necessary protective clothing, the 144th Army National Guard Service and Supply Company was allowed to perform DU battlefield cleanup for three weeks in Kuwait and southern Iraq, where the U.S. Army fired at least 14,000 rounds (or 40 tons) of DU ammunition.

The Department of Energy possesses over 500,000 tons of DU that has been accumulating since the Manhattan Project. Billions of dollars have been spent by the U.S. government to find a final dumpsite for the radioactive waste, but other nations, as well as communities in Maine and New Mexico have resisted the efforts to dump the DU waste in their areas. The use of this weaponry in the Persian Gulf, then, served two purposes. It eliminated enemy troops and weapons and disposed of tens or even hundreds of tons of the radioactive DU on the Persian Gulf battlefields.

The effects of depleted uranium exposure, however, are just beginning to be known. DU has now been linked to many illnesses, including the mysterious “Gulf War Syndrome.” Despite widespread concern among Gulf War vets and in U.S. communities about the dangers of DU weapons, the Pentagon, the Department of Energy, and military defense contractors are all excited about the sales potential of DU weapons as well as the transfer of DU to allies for their own weapons production. According to Nuclear Regulatory Commission shipment records, steady transfers a mounting to several million pounds of DU-have been flowing to U.S. allies over the past decade, with Britain, France, and Canada being the largest recipients.

SSU Censored Researchers: Aaron Butler, Deborah Udall

COMMENTS: Dan Fahey is an activist who works with Swords to Plowshares, a veterans’ rights organization. He contributed to the report, Radioactive Battlefields of the 1990s: The United States Army’s Use of Depleted Uranium and its Consequences for Human Health and the Environment, which was released by the Maine-based Military Toxics Project’s Depleted Uranium Citizens’ Network in January 1996 as a response to the Army’s unreleased report on depleted uranium weaponry. According to Fahey, “The issue of depleted uranium (DU) munitions received virtually no coverage during the past year on network TV, in newsweeklies, and in major daily newspapers. In fact, the focus on exposure to chemical warfare agents during the Gulf War has virtually eliminated the mention of other Gulf War exposures, including DU. Even when the Depleted Uranium Citizens’ Network of the Military Toxics Project publicly released a leaked Army report (which contained damaging admissions about the dangers of DU weapons) in January 1996, the story was virtually ignored by mainstream media.

“The issue of DU weapons received more attention in the United Kingdom during 1996 than it did in the U.S., partially because a secret British Atomic Energy Authority report warned that 500,000 people could potentially die from the DU contamination left on the Gulf War’s battlefields,” says Fahey.

“The Army’s desire to avoid public awareness of DU is expressed in the following quote from the leaked Army report on DU: `When DU is indicted as a causative agent for Desert Storm illness, the Army must have sufficient data to separate fiction from reality. Without forethought and data, the financial implications of long-term disability payments and health care costs could be excessive.’

“Citizens and soldiers from other countries, as well as those in the U.S., would probably also do well to ponder the following quote [also] from the leaked Army report: ‘Since DU weapons are openly available on the world arms market, DU weapons will be used in future conflicts…. The number of DU patients on future battlefields probably will be significantly higher because other countries will use systems containing DU.’ Greater public awareness of DU will enable objective decisions to be made about its use in weaponry.

“The health and environmental effects of the 300 tons of DU shot in the Gulf is just a glimpse of the dangers that our society, and the world, will be forced to deal with if and when DU weapons are used in future conflicts. Because DU has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, and because it is extremely difficult and costly to clean up after it has been shot on a testing range or battlefield, DU threatens to pollute future battlefields and poison and kill people for thousands of generations,” says Fahey. “…The citizens of Iraq and Kuwait are already suffering the effects of the 300 tons of DU which remain in battlefield areas. Six years after the war, there are still no plans to clean up the contamination.

“During 1995 and 1996, ten members of the DU Citizens’ Network presented written or oral testimony about DU to the Presidential Advisory Committee on Persian Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses (PAC). Our work with the PAC included providing them with a copy of the leaked Army report on DU, which even the presidential committee was unable to obtain despite repeated requests over the course of at least six months. Unfortunately, the staff assigned to investigating DU for the PAC discredited the work of the DU Citizens’ Network in a phone conversation to me, choosing instead to rely upon Pentagon assertions downplaying both the dangers of DU and the numbers of troops exposed to DU on the battlefield.

“Recent developments include the passage of resolutions on DU by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion, and two documentaries on DU in progress by film makers from New York and Japan.” Fahey says he is currently working with the American Legion to have congressional hearings on DU in the next congressional session and he says the DU Citizens’ Network is also currently drafting language for a UN resolution calling for an international ban on DU weapons.

Rebecca Solnit, who edited the report, Radioactive Battlefields of the 1990s, added this comment: “Depleted uranium armaments represent nothing less than an intentional effort to spread nuclear waste around the world for a dubious military advantage …. DU contamination also exists in military sites across the U.S., and like nuclear testing and weapons manufacture it takes a toll on the very people who are supposed to be protected by U.S. military efforts.”

According to Bill Triplett, author of the VVA Veteran article, “The mainstream press has pursued the subject of DU, but only as it might relate to what has become known as `Gulf War Syndrome,’ i.e., a possible cause of it.

“I believe the media’s hunt for an answer to Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) has blinded them to newsworthy issues that are or may be related to GWS, but that are not causally linked. Put another way, if it doesn’t seem to be causing GWS, then we’re not really interested in it. DU—like other suspects in the GWS story has not been identified as a primary, suspected cause. But does this mean it is not something worth our attention; especially in light of the Army’s own apprehensiveness about its potential health risks independent of its relationship to GWS?” asks Triplett.

Gary Cohen, who wrote the Multinational Monitor article, agrees that media silence on the issue benefits the Pentagon: “Armor-piercing DU weapons are powerful new weapons in the Pentagon’s arsenal and an important new weapon for sale in the global arms market; and weapons manufacturers like Aerojet and Nuclear Metals, as well as foreign arms merchants” benefit, as well.

Cohen adds, “The U.S. Government’s cover-up is similar to its cover-up around Agent Orange exposure and above-ground nuclear testing in the 1950s. The issue highlights the reality that innocent Americans, as well as enlisted men and women, are expendable cannon fodder in the U.S. Government’s military adventures, and that it is more important to defend a military company or a weapons system than defend American citizens or the country’s environment.”

According to Kathryn Casa, who wrote the National Catholic Reporter article with a Bosnia angle, there has not been “any coverage in the United States media of how exposure to depleted uranium has affected the Iraqi and perhaps Saudi populations, the only foreign civilians known to have been exposed to DU weapons.

“As my article pointed out, even the U.S. government has admitted that soldiers in the Gulf were inadequately trained to handle weapons containing depleted uranium, and many did not know that they were dealing with DU at all,” says Casa.

Casa adds, “With the exception of one 60 Minutes segment by Leslie Stahl, there has been very little effort to cover the situation in Iraq, where more than half a million children are believed to have died as a result of the war’s fallout, including DU contamination and the UN sanctions.”

It should be noted that The Nation published an important investigative report on the subject of DU weapons in its October 21, 1996 issue. The cover story, “The Pentagon’s Radioactive Bullet,” by Bill Mesler, describes how hundreds, perhaps thousands, of veterans were unknowingly exposed to DU in the Persian Gulf.

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