Heroic soldiers returning from Iraq seem to be prey to the same debilitating, potentially fatal illnesses that first became known as Gulf War syndrome and then afflicted veterans of Bosnia and Kosovo. Critics point to the U.S.’s own ammunition made of toxic, radioactive depleted uranium—an explanation the Pentagon is resisting
By David Rose
When he started to get sick, Staff Sergeant Raymond Ramos’s first instinct was to fight. “I had joint pains, muscle aches, chronic fatigue, but I tried to exercise it out,” he says. “I was going for runs, working out. But I never got any better. The headaches were getting more frequent and sometimes lasted all day. I was losing a lot of weight. My overall physical demeanor was bad.”
A 20-year veteran of the New York National Guard, Ramos had been mobilized for active duty in Iraq in the spring of 2003. His unit, the 442nd Military Police company, arrived there on Easter, 10 days before President Bush’s MISSION ACCOMPLISHED appearance on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. A tall, soft-spoken 40-year-old with four children, the youngest still an infant, Ramos was proud of his physique. In civilian life, he was a New York City cop. “I worked on a street narcotics team. It was very busy, with lots of overtime—very demanding.” Now, rising unsteadily from his armchair in his thickly carpeted living room in Queens, New York, Ramos grimaces. “The shape I came back in, I cannot perform at that level. I’ve lost 40 pounds. I’m frail.”
At first, as his unit patrolled the cities of Najaf and al-Diwaniyya, Ramos stayed healthy. But in June 2003, as temperatures climbed above 110 degrees, his unit was moved to a makeshift base in an abandoned railroad depot in Samawah, where some fierce tank baffles had taken place. “When we first got there, I was a heat casualty, feeling very weak,” Ramos says. He expected to recover quickly. Instead, he went rapidly downhill.
By the middle of August, when the 442nd was transferred to Babylon, Ramos says, the right side of his face and both of his hands were numb, and he had lost most of the strength in his grip. His fatigue was worse and his headaches had become migraines, frequently so severe “that I just couldn’t function.” His urine often contained blood, and even when it didn’t he would feel a painful burning sensation, which “wouldn’t subside when I finished.” His upper body was covered by a rash that would open and weep when he scratched it. As he tells me this, he lifts his shirt to reveal a mass of pale, circular scars. He was also having respiratory difficulties. Later, he would develop sleep apnea, a dangerous condition in which he would stop breathing during sleep.
Eventually, Ramos was medevaced to a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. Doctors there were baffled and sent him on to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. There, Ramos says, one neurologist suggested that his condition could have been caused by some long-forgotten head injury or might just be “signs of aging.” At the end of September 2003, the staff at Walter Reed ordered him to report to Fort Dix, New Jersey, where, he says, a captain went through his record and told him “I was clear to go back to Iraq. I got the impression they thought I was faking it.” He was ordered to participate in a long-distance run. Halfway thruugh, he collapsed. Finally, on July 31, 2004, after months of further examinations, Ramos was discharged with a medical disability and sent home.
Symptoms such as Ramos’s had been seen before. In veterans of Operation Desert Storm, they came to be called Gulf War syndrome; among those posted to Bosnia and Kosovo in the l990s, Bal kans syndrome.
“I WORKED ON A STREET NARCOTICS TEAM,” SAYS RAMOS. “THE SHAPE I CAME BACK IN, I CANNOT PERFORM AT THAT LEVEL. I’M FRAIL. “
He was not the only member of the 442nd to suffer them. Others had similar urinary problems, joint pains, fatigue, head-aches, rashes, and sleep apnea. Today, some scientists believe that all these problems, together with others found in war-zone civilians, can be traced to the wide-spread use of a uniquely deadly form of ammunition.
In the ongoing Iraq conflict, just as in the Gulf War of 1991 and in the Balkans, American and British forces have fired tens of thousands of shells and cannon rounds made of a toxic and radioactive material called depleted uranium, or D.U. Because D.U. is dense - approximately 1.7 times as dense as lead—and ignites upon impact, at a temperature of about 5,400 degrees. it can penetrate armor more effectively than any other material.
It’s also remarkably cheap. The arms industry gets its D.U for free from nuclear-fuel processors, which generate -large quantities of it as a by-product of enriching uranium for reactor fuel. Such processors would otherwise have to dispose of it in protected, regulated sites. D.U. is “depleted” only in the -. sense that most of its fissile U-235 isotope has been removed. What’s left— mainly U-2 38—is still radioactive.
Three of the main weapons systems _ still being used in Iraq—the M-l Abrams tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and the A-10 Warthog attack jet—use D.U. ammunition. A 120-mm. tank round contains about nine pounds of solid D.U. When a D.U. “penetrator” strikes its target, up to 70 percent of the shell’s mass is flung into the air in a shower of uranium-oxide fragments and dust, some in the form of aerosolized particl es less than a millionth of a meter in
diameter. When inhaled, such particles lodge in the lungs and bathe the -surrounding tissue with alpha radiation, known to be highly dangerous internally, and smaller amounts of beta and gamma radiation.
Even before Desert Storm, the Pentagon knew that D.U. was potentially hazardous. Before last year’s Iraq invasion, it issued strict regulations designed to protect civilians, troops, and the environment after the use of D.U. But the Pentagon insists that there is little chance that these veterans’ illnesses are caused by D.U.
The U.S. suffered only 167 fatal combat casualties in the first Gulf War. Since then, veterans have claimed pensions and health-care benefits at a re.ord rate The Veterans Administration reported this year that it was paying service- related disability pensions to 181,996 Gulf War veterans—almost a third of the total still living. Of these, 3,248 were being compensated for “undiagnosed illnesses.” The Pentagon’s spokesman, Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, deputy director of its Deployment Health section, says that Gulf War veterans are no less healthy than soldiers who were stationed elsewhere.
Those returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom are also beginning to report illnesses in significant numbers. In July2004, the VA disclosed that 27,571 of them—16.4 percent of the total—had sought health care. Of that group, 8,134 suffered muscular and skeletal ailments; 3,505 had respiratory problems; and 5,674 had “symptoms, signs and ill-defined conditions.” An additional 153 had developed cancers. The VA. claims that such figures are “typica1 of young, active, healthcare-seeking populations,” but does not offer figures for comparison.
There is also evidence of a large rise in birth defects and unprecedented cancer rates among civilians following the first Gulf War in the Basra region of southern Iraq, where the heaviest fighting took place. Dr. Kilpatnck says, “I think it’s very important to try to understand what are the causes of that high rate of cancer and birth defects. There has to be a good look at that, but if you go to the M. D. Anderson hospital, in Houston, Texas, you’re going to find a very high rate of cancer. That’s because people from all over the country with cancer go there, because it’s one of the premier care centers. Basra was the only major hospital in southern Iraq. Are the people there with these different problems people who lived their entire lives in Basra, or are they people who’ve come to Basra for care?” It is possible, he says, that some other environmental factor is responsible for the illnesses, such as Saddam’s chemical weapons or poor nutrition “I don’t think anything should be taken off the table.”
In October 2004, an early draft of a study by the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ illnesses, a scientific panel run by the V.A., was leaked to The New York Times. According to the Times, the panel had concluded that there was a “probable link” between veterans illnesses and exposure to neurotoxins, including a drug given to troops in 1991 to protect them from nerve gas, and nerve gas itself which was released when U.S.-led forces destroyed an Iraqi arms depot. Asked why there was no mention of D.U. in the report, Dr. Lea Steele, the panel’s scientific director, says that her group plans to address it in a later report “We’ve only just begun work on this topic. We are certainly not ruling it out”
D.U.’s critics, meanwhile, say it’s entirely possible that both neurotoxins and D.U. are responsible for the widespread sickness among veterans.
Members of the 442nd have vivid memories of being exposed to D.U. Sergeant Hector Vega, a youthful-looking 48-year-old who in civilian life works in a building opposite Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum, says he now struggles with chest pains, heart palpitations, headaches, urinary problems, body tremors, and breathlessness—none of which he’d ever experienced before going to Iraq. He recalls the unit’s base there: “There were burnt-out Iraqi tanks on flatbed trucks 100 yards from where we slept. It looked like our barracks had also been lit, with black soot on the walls.
It was open to the elements, and dust was coming in all the time. When the wind blew, we were eating it, breathing it. It was everywhere.” (The Department of Defense, or D.O.D., says that a team of specialists is conducting an occupational and environmental health survey in the area.)
Dr. AsafDurakovic, 64, is a retired U.S. Army colonel and the former head of nuclear medicine at a veterans’ hospital in Wilmington, Delaware. Dr. Durakovic reports finding D.U. in the urine of 18 out of 30 Desert Storm veterans, sometimes up to a decade after they were exposed, and in his view D.U. fragments are both a significant cause of Gulf War syndrome aind a hazard to civilians for an indefinite period of time. He says that when he began to voice these fears inside the military he was first warned, then fired: he now operates from Toronto, Canada, at the independent Uranium Medical Research Centre.
In December 2003, Dr. Durakovic analyzed the urine of nine members of the 442nd With funds supplied by the New York Dailv News, which first published the results, Durakovic sent the samples to a laboratory in Germany that has some of the world’s most advanced mass-spectrometry equipment He concluded that Ramos, Vega, Sergeant Agustin Matos, and Corporal Anthony Yonnone were “internally contaminated by depleted uranium (D.U.) as a result of exposure through (the] respiratoty pathway.”
The Pentagon contests these findings. Dr. Kilpatrick says that, when the D.O.D. conducted its own tests, “our results [didl not mirror die results of Dr. Durakovic.” “Background” sources, such as water, soil, and therefore food, frequently contain some uranium. The Pentagon insists that the 442nd soldiers’ urinary uranium is “within normal dietary ranges,” and that “it was not possible to distinguish D.U. from the background levels of natural uranium.” The Pentagon says it has tested about 1,000 vets from the current conflict and found D.U. contamination in only five. Its critics insist this is because its equipment is too insensitive and its testing methods are hopelessly flawed
At a briefing before the Iraq invasion in March 2003, Dr. Kilpatrick tried to reassure reporters about D.U. by citing the cases of about 20 Desert Storm vets who had D.U. shrapnel in their bodies. “We have not seen any untoward medical consequences in these individuals,” he said. “There has been no cancer of bone or lungs, where you would expect them.” It appears that he misspoke on that occasion: one of these veterans had already had an arm amputated for an osteosarcoma, or bone tumor, at the site where the shrapnel entered. Dr. Kilpatrick confirms that the veteran was treated by the V.A. in Baltimore, but says his condition may not have been linked with the shrapnel: “Osteosarcomas are fairly common.” Studies have shown that D.U. can begin to move through the body and concentrate in the lymph nodes, and another of the vets with shrapnel has a form of lymphatic cancer. But this, Dr. Kilpatrick says, has “no known cause.” He concedes that research has not proved the negative, that D.U. doesn’t cause cancer. But, he says, “science doesn’t in 2004 show that D.U. causes any cancer.”
It does, however, show that it may. Pentagon-sponsored studies at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, in Bethesda, Maryland, have found that, when D.U. was embedded in animals, several genes associated with human tumors underwent “aberrant activation,” and oncoproteins of the type found in cancer patients turned up in their blood. The animals’ urine was “mutagenic,” meaning that it could cause cells to mutate. Another institute project found that D.U. could damage the immune system by hastening the death of white blood cells and impairing their ability to attack bacteria.
In June 2004 the U.S. General Accounting Office (G.A.O.) issued a report to Congress that was highly critical of government research into Gulf War syndrome and veterans’ cancer rates. The report said that the studies on which federal agencies ware basing their claim that Gulf War veterans were no sicker than the veterans of other wars “may not be reliable” and had “inherent limitations,” with big data gaps and methodological flaws. Because cancers can take years to develop, the G.A.O. stated, “it may be too early” to draw any conclusions. Dr. Kilpatrick dismisses this report, saying it was “just the opinion of a group of individuals.”
Yet another Pentagon-funded study suggested that D.U. might have effects on unborn children After finding that pregnant rats transmitted D.U. to their offspring through the placenta, the study concluded:
“Fetal exposure to uranium during critical prenatal development may adversely impact the future behavioral and neurological development of offspring.” In September 2004, the New York Daily News reported that Gerard Darren Matthew, who had served in Iraq with the 719th Transportation Company, which is based in Harlem, had tested positive for D.U. after suffering migraines, fatigue, and a burning sensation when urinating. Following his return, his wife became pregnant, and their daughter, Victoria Claudette, was born missing three fingers.
Ultimately, critics say, the Pentagon underestimates the dangers of D.U.because it measures them in the wrong way: by calculating the average amount of D.U. radiation produced throughout the body. When we meet, Dr. Kilpatrick gives me a report the Department of Defense issued in 2000. It concludes that even vets with the highest exposures from embedded shrapnel could expect over 50 years to receive a dose of just five rem, “which is the annual limit for [nuclear industry] workers.” The dose for those who inhaled dust from burned-out tanks would be “far below the annual guideline (0.1 rem) for members of the public.”
But to measure the effect of D.U. as a whole-body radiation dose is meaningless, Asaf Durukovic says, because the dose from D.U. is intensely concentrated in the cells around a mote of dust The alpha particles D.U. emits—high-energy clumps of protons and neutrons—are harmless outside the body, because they cannot pass through skin. Inside tissue, however, they wreak a havoc analogous to that of a penetrating shell against an enemy tank~ bombarding cell nuclei, breaking chains of DNA, damaging fragile genes. Marcelo Valdes, a physicist and computer scientist who is president of Dr. Durakovic’s research institute, says the cells around a
“DUST WAS COMING IN ALL THE TIME,” SAYS SERGEANT VEGA. “WE WERE EATING IT, BREATHING IT. IT WAS EVERYWHERE.”
D.U. particle 2.5 microns in diameter will receive a maximum annual radiation dose of 16 rads. If every pocket of tissue in the body were to absorb that amount of radiation, the total level would reach 7 trillion rads—millions of times the lethal dosage.
In the potentially thousands of hot spots inside the lungs of a person exposed to D.U.dust; the same cells will be irradiated again and again, until their ability to repair themselves is lost. In 1991, Durakovic found D.U. in the urine of 14 veterans who had returned from the Gulf with headaches, muscle and skeletal pain, fatigue, trembling, and kidney problems. “Immediately I understood from their symptoms and their histories that they could have been exposed to radiation,” he says. Within three years, two were dead from lung cancer: “One was 33, the other 42. Both were nonsmokers, in previously excellent health.”
D.U. he says, steadily migrates to the bones. There it irradiates the marrow where stem cells, the progenitors of all the other cells the body manufactures in order to renew itself, are produced. “Stem cells am very vulnerable,” Durakovic says.
“Bombarded with alpha particles, their DNA will fall apart, potentially affecting every organ. If malfunctioning stem cells become new liver cells, then the liver will malfunction. If stem cells are damaged, they may form defective tissue.
If D.U. is as dangerous as its critics allege, it can kill even without causing cancer. At her home in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Susan Riordon recalls the return of her husband, Terry, from the Gulf in 1991. Terry, a security captain, served in intelligence during the war: his service record refers to his setting up a “safe haven” in the Iraqi “theatre.” Possibly, Susan speculates, this led him behind enemy lines and exposed him to D.U. during the long aerial bombing campaign that preceded the 1991 invasion. In any event, “when he came home, he didn’t really come home,” she says.
At first, Terry merely had the usual headaches, body pain, oozing rash, and other symptoms. But later be began to suffer from another symptom which afflicts some of those exposed to D.U.: burning semen. “If he leaked a little lubrication from his penis, it would feel like sunburn on your skin. If you got to the point where you did have intercourse, you were up and out of that bed so fast-it actually causes vaginal blisters that burst and bleed.” Terry’s medical records support her description. In England, Malcolm Hooper, professor emeritus of medicinal chemistry at the University of Sunderland, is aware of 4,000 such cases. He hypothesizes that the presence of D.U. may be associated with the transformation of semen into a caustic alkali.
“It hurt [Terry] too. He said it was like forcing it through barbed wire,” Riordon says. “It seemed to burn through condoms; if he got any on his thighs or his testicles, he was in hell.” In a last, desperate attempt to save their sex life, says Riordon, “I used to fill condoms with frozen peas and insert them [after sex] with a lubricant” That, she says, made her pain just about bearable. Perhaps inevitably, he became impotent “And that was like our last little intimacy gone.”
By late 1995, Terry was seriously deteriorating. Susan shows me her journal—she titled it “The Twilight Zane”—and his medical record. It makes harrowing reading. He lost his fine motor control to the point where he could not button his shirt or zip his fly. While walking, he would fall without warning. At night, he shook so violently that the bed would move across the floor. He became unpredictably violent: one terrible day in 1997 he attacked their 16-year-old son and stated choking him. By the time armed police arrived to pull him off, the boy’s bottom lip had turned blue. After such rages, he would fall into a deep sleep for as long as 24 hours, and awake with no memory of what had happened. That year, Terry and Susan stopped sleeping in the same bedroom. Then “he began to barricade himself in his room for days, surviving on granola bars and cartons of juice.”
As he went downhill, Terry was assessed as completely disabled, but there was no diagnosis as to why. His records contain references to “somatization disorder,” post-traumatic stress, and depression. In 1995 the army doctors even suggested that he had become ill only after reading of Gulf War syndrome. Through 1998 and 1999, he began to lose all cognitive functions and was sometimes lucid for just a few hours each week.
Even after he died, on April 29,1999, Terry’s Canadian doctors remained unable to explain his illness. “This patient has a history (of] ‘Gulf War Syndrome’ with multiple motor- sensory and emotional problems” the autopsy report by pathologist Dr. B. Jollymore, of Yarmouth, begins. “During extensive investigation, no definitive diagnosis has been determined.... Essentially it appears that this gentleman remains an enigma in death as lie was in life.”
Not long before Terry’s death, Susan Riordan had learned of Asaf Durakovic, and of the possibility that her husband absorbed D.U. His urine-test results—showing a high D.U. concentration eight years after he was presumably exposed— came through on Monday, April 26: “Tuesday be was reasonably cognitive, and was able to tell me that he wanted his body and organs to go to Dr, Durakovic,” she remembers. “He knew it was too late to help him, but he made me promise that his body could help the international community. On the Wednesday, I completed the purchase of this house. On Thursday, he was dead.
“It was a very strange death. He was very peaceful. I’ve always felt that Asaf allowed Terry to go: knowing he was positive meant he wasn’t crazy anymore. Those last days he was calm. He wasn’t putting the phone in the microwave; he had no more mood swings.”
After Riordon’s death, Dr. Durakovic and his colleagues found accumulations of D.U. in his bones and lungs. Dr. Dumkovic suspects the military of minimizing the health and environmental consequences of D.U. weapons, and suggests two reasons it may have for doing so: “to keep them off the list of war criminals, and to avoid paying compensation which could run into billions of-dollars.” To this might be added a third: depleted uranium, because of its unique armor-penetrating capabilities, has become a defining feature of American warfare, one whose loss would be intolerable to military planners.
In 1991, the U.S. used D.U. weapons to kill thousands of Iraqis in tanks and armored vehicles on the ‘highway of death” from Kuwait to Basra. The one-sided victory ushered in a new era of “lethality overmatch”—the ability to strike an enemy with virtual impunity. A Pentagon pamphlet from 2003 states that a central objective of the American military is to “generate dominant lethality - overmatch across the full spectrum of operations,” and no weapon is better suited to achieving that goal than D.U.
The value of depleted uranium was spelled out more simply in a Pentagon briefing by Colonel James Naughton of the army’s Materiel Command in March 2003, just before the Iraq invasion: “What we want to be able to do is strike the target from farther away than we can be hit back.... We don’t want to fight even. Nobody goes into a war and wants to be even with the enemy. We want to be ahead, and D.U. gives us that advantage.”
If the Pentagon is right about the risks of D.U., such statements should not be controversial. If it is wrong, says retired army colonel Dr. Andras Korenyi-Both, who headed one of the main field hospitals during Desert Storm and later conducted some of the first research into Gulf War syndrome, the position is less clear-cut. “You’d have to deal with the question of whether it’s better not to use D.U. and have more of your soldiers die in battle or to use D.U. and lose very few in the field—but have them get sick and die when they get home.”
One desert morning in the early spring.— of 1991, while sitting in his office at the Eskan Village military compound near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Lieutenant Doug Rokke was shown a memorandum. Rokke, a health physicist and training specialist; was a reservist and had recently been ordered to join the Third U.S. Army’s depleted-uranium-assessment team, assigned to clean up and move American vehicles hit by friendly fire during Operation Desert Storm. The memo, dated March 1, came from a senior military officer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico.
During the Gulf War, it said, “D.U. penetrators were very effective against Iraqi armor.” However, “there has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of D.U. on the environment. Therefore, if no one makes a case for the effectiveness of D.U. on the battlefield, D.U. rounds may become politically unacceptable and thus, be deleted from the arsenal.... I believe we should keep this sensitive issue at mind when after action reports are written.” Rokke says: “I interpreted the memo to mean: we want this stuff—don’t write any thing that might make it difficult for us to use it again”
Rokke’s assignment was dangerous and unpleasant. The vehicles ware coated with uranium-oxide soot, and dust lay in the sand outside. He wore a mask, but it didn’t help. “We could taste it and smell it,” he says of the D.U. “It tasted very strong and unmistakable.” Years later, he says he was found to be excreting uranium at 5,000 times the normal level. Now 55 he pants during ordinary conversation and says he still gets a rash like the one Raymond Ramos of the 442nd suffers from. In addition, Rokke has joint pains, muscle aches, and cataracts.
In 1994, Rokke became director of a Pentagon project designed to learn more about D.U. contamination and to develop training that would immunize its risks. “I’m a warrior, and warriors want to fulfill their mission,” Rokke says. “I went into this wanting to make it work, to work out how to use D.U. safely, and to show other soldiers how to do so and how to clean it up. This was not science out of a book but science done by blowing the shit out of tanks and seeing what happens And as we did this work, slowly it dawned on me that we were screwed. You can’t do this safely in combat conditions. You can’t decontaminate the environment or your own troops.”
Rokke and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments at the US Department of Energy’s Nevada nuclear test site. They set fire to a Bradley loaded with D. U. rounds and fired D.U. shells at old Soviet tanks. At his remote, ramshackle farmhouse amid the rural flatlands of central Illinois, Rokke shows me videos of his tests. Most spectacular are those shot at night, which depict the fiery streak of the D.U. round, already burning before impact, followed by the red cascade of the debris cloud. “Everything we hit we destroyed,” he says. “I tell you, these things are just…fantastic.”
The papers Rokke wrote describing his findings are more sobering. He recorded levels of contamination that were 15 times the army s permissible levels in tanks hit by D.U., and up to 4.5 times such levels in clothing exposed to D.U.
The good news was that it was possible, using a special Department of Energy vacuum cleaner designed for sucking up radioactive waste, to reduce contamination from vehicles and equipment to near official limits, and to “mask” the intense radiation around holes left by D.U. projectiles by sealing them with layers of foam caulking, paint, or cardboard. (Such work, Rokke wrote, would naturally have to be carried out by teams in full radiological-protection suits and respirators.) When it came to clothes, however,
“IT WAS A VERY STRANGE DEATH. HE WAS VERY PEACEFUL… KNOWING HE WAS D.U. POSITIVE MEANT THAT HE WASN’T CRAZY ANYMORE.”
D.U. particles “became imbedded in the clothing and could not be removed with brushing or other abrasive methods.” Rokke found that even after he tried to decontaminate them the clothes were still registering between two and three times the limit “This may pose a significant logistics impact,” Rode wrote, with some understatement.
The elaborate procedures required to decontaminate equipment, meanwhile, would be almost impossible to implement a in combat. “On a real battlefield, it’s not like there’s any control,” Rokke says. “It’s chaos. Maybe its night. Who’s going to come along and isolate contaminated enemy tanks? You’ve got a pile of rubble and mess and you’re still coming under fire. The idea that you’re going to come out in radiological suits and vacuum up at a building or a smashed T-72 [tank]—it’s ridiculous.”
Large amounts of black D.U.-oxide dust were readily visible within 50 meters of a tank hit by penetrators and within 100 meters of the D.U.-packed Bradley that was set on fire. But less obvious amounts were easily detected at much greater distances. Worse, such dust could be “resuspended” in the atmosphere “upon contact, if wind blew, or during movement.” For American troops, that meant that “respiratory and skin protection is warranted during all phases of recovery.” For civilians, even ones at considerable distances, it meant they might be exposed to windblown D.U. far into the future.
After Rokke completed the project, be was appointed head of the lab at Fort McClellan where it had been based. He resigned the staff physicist post he’d held for 19 years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and moved south with his family. Early in 1996, after he began to voice the conclusions he was drawing about the future viability of D.U.weapons, he was fired. ‘Then I remembered the Los Alamos memo,” he says. “They’d wanted ‘proponency’ for D.U. weapons, and I was giving them the opposite”.
I ask Dr. Kilpatrick, the D.O.D. spokesman on D.U., about Rokke’s test firings. His reply: “One, he never did that. He was in Nevada as an observer. He was not part of that
at all. At that time he was working in education at an army school, and his assignment was to develop educational materials for troops.” Rokke, he says, may have spent a few days observing the tests but he did not organize them.
Documents from Rokke’s service record tell a different story. His appraisal from December 1, 1995, written by Dr.Ed Battle, then chief of the radiation laboratories at Fort McClellan, describes Rokke’s mission as follows: to “plan, coordinate, supervise and implement the U.S. Army… depleted uranium trraining development project.” He continued: Captain Rokke has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to function well above his current rank and is as effective as any I have known.” He had directly participated in “extremely crucial tests at n-the Nevada Atomic Test Site” and his achievements had been “absolutely phenomenal.”
Rokke was awarded two medals for his works The citation for one commended him for “meritorious service while assigned as the depleted uranium project leader. Your outstanding achievements have prepared our soldiers for hazards and will have a vast payoff in the health, safety, and protection of all soldiers.”
Rokke’s work in Nevada helped persuade the military that D.U. weapons had to be dealt with carefully. On September 16,2002, General Eric Shinseki, the U.S. Army chief of staff, signed Army Regulation 700-48, which sets forth strict rules for handling items, including destroyed or disabled enemy targets, that have been hit and contaminated by D.U. “During peacetime or as soon as operational risk permits,” it states, local commanders must “identify, segregate, isolate, secure, and label all RCE [radiologically contaminated equipmentj. Procedures to minimize the spread of radioactivity will be implemented as soon as possible.” Under pre-existing regulations, damaged vehicles should be moved to a collection point or maintenance facility, and covered and wrapped with canvas or plastic tarp to prevent spread of contaminants with loose items placed in double plastic bags. Soldiers who carry out such tasks should wear protective equipment.
The burned-out tanks behind the 442nd s barracks in Samawah may not have been the only D.U.contaminated pieces of equipment to be left where they lay. In the fall of 2003, Tedd Weyman, a colleague of Dr. Durakovic’s, spent 16 days in Iraq, taking samples and observing the response of coalition forces to General Shinseki’s directive. “When tanks shot up by D.U. munitions were removed, I saw no precautions being taken at all,” he says. “Ordinary soldiers with no protection just came along and used chains to load them onto flatbeds, towing them away just as they might your car if it broke down on the highway. They took them to bases with British and American troops and left them in the open” Time after time, Weyman recorded high levels of contamination—-so high that on his return to Canada he was found to have 4.5 times the normal level of uranium in his own urine.
A Pentagon memo, signed on May 30,2003, by Dr. William Winkenwerder, an assistant defense secretary, says that any American personnel “who were in,on, or near combat vehicles at the time they were struck by rounds,” or who entered such vehicles or fought fires involving D.U. munitions, should be assissed for possible exposure and receive appropriate health care.This category could be said to include any soldier who fought in, or cleaned up after, battles with Iraqi armor.
Still, the Pentagon insists that the risks remain acceptably small. “There isn’t any recognized disease from exposure to natural or depleted uranium,” Dr. Kilpatrick says. He tells me that America will mount a thorough cleanup in Iraq, disposing of any D.U. fragments and burying damaged vehicles in unpopulated locations, but that, for the time being, such an operation—is impossible. “We really can’t begin any enviromnental assessment or cleanup
“WE DON’T WANT TO FIGHT EVEN, SAID COLONEL JAMES NAUGHTON. “WE WANT TO BE AHEAD, AND D.U. GIVES US THAT ADVANTAGE”
while there’s ongoing combat.” Nevertheless, he says, there’s no cause for concern.“I think we can be very confident that what is in the environment does not create a hazard for those living in the environment and working in it.”
As this article was going to press, the Pentagon published the findings of a new study that, according to Dr. Kilpatrick, shows D.U. to be a “lethal but safe weapons system.”
In his Pentagon briefing in March 2003, Dr. Kilpatrrck said that even if D.U. weapons did generate toxic dust, it would not spread. “It falls to the ground very quickly—usually within about a 50-meter range,” he said. “It’s heavy. It’s 1.7 times as heavy as lead. So even if it’s a small dust particle it stays on the ground.” Evidence that this is not the case comes; from somewhere much closer than Iraq—; an abandoned D.U.-weapons factory in. Colonie, New York, a few miles from Albany, the state capital.
`In 1958, a corporation called National Lead began making depleted-uranium products at a plant on Central Avenue, surrounded by houses and an Amtrak line. In 1979, just as the plant was increasing its production of D.U. ammunition to, meet a new Pentagon contract, a whistleblower from inside the plant told the county health department that N.L. was releasing large amounts of D.U. oxide into the environment.
Over the next two years, he and other workers testified before both the New York State Assembly and a local residents’ campaign group. They painted a picture of reckless neglect D.U. chips and shavings were simply incinerated, and the resulting oxide dust passed into the atmosphere through the chimneys. “I used to do a lot of burning,” William Luther told the governor’s task force in 1982. “They told me to do it at night so the black smoke wouldn’t be seen.” Later, many of the workers were found to have inhaled huge doses into their lungs, and some developed cancers and other illnesses at relatively young ages.
In January 1980 the state forced N.L. to agree to limit its radioactive emissions to 500 microcuries per year. The following month, the state shut the plant down. In January alone, the D.U.-chip burner had released 2,000 microcunes. An official environmental survey produced horrifying results. Soil in the gardens of homes near the plant was emitting radiation at up to 300 times the normal background level for upstate New York. Inside the 11-acre factory site, readings were up to five times higher.
The federal government has been spending tax dollars to clean up the Colonie site for the past 19 years, under a program called FUSRAI’—the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program. Today’ all that is left of the Colonie plant are enormous piles of earth, constantly moistened with hoses and secured by giant tarpaulins to prevent dispersal, and a few deep pits. In its autumn 2004 bulletin to residents, the FUSRAP team disclosed that it had so far removed 125,242 tons of contaminated soil from the area, all of which have been buried at radioactive-waste sites in Utah and Idaho. In some places, the excavations are more than 10 feet deep. FUSRAP had also discovered contamination in the neighboring Patroon Creek, where children used to play, and in the reservoir it feeds, and had treated 23.5 million gallons of contaminated water. The cost so far has been about $155 million, and the earliest forecast for the work’s completion is 2008.
Years before FUSRAP began to dig, there were data to suggest that D.U. particles— and those emitted at Colonie are approximately the same size as those produced by weapons—can travel much farther than 50 meters. In 1979, nuclear physicist Len Dietz was working at a lab operated by General Electric in Schenectady, 10 miles west of Colonie. “We had air filters all around our perimeter fence,” he recalls. “One day our radiological manager told me we had a problem: one of the filters was showing abnormally high alpha radiation. Much to our surprise, we found D.U. in it. There could only be one source: the N.L. plant” Dietz had other filters checked both in Schenectady and at other G.E. sites. The three that were farthest away were in West Milton, 26 miles northwest, and upwind, of Colonie. All the filters contained pure Colonie D.U. “Effectively,” says Dietz, “the particles’ range is unlimited.”
In August 2003, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry published a short report on Colonie. On the one hand, it declared that the pollution produced when the plant was operating could have increased the risks of kidney disease and lung cancer. Because the source of the danger had shut down, however, there was now “no apparent public health hazard.” Thus there was no need to conduct a full epidemiological study of those who had lived near and worked at the factory—the one way to produce hard scientific data on what the health consequences of measurable D.U. contamination actually are.
The people of Colonie have been trying to collect health data of their own. Sharon Herr, 45, lived near the plant for nine years. She used to work 60 hours a week at two jobs—as a clerk in the state government and as a real-estate agent. Now she too is sick, and suffers symptoms which sound like a textbook case of Gulf War syndrome: “Fourteen years ago,I lost my grip to the point where I can’t turn keys. I’m stiff, with bad joint and muscle pain, which has got progressively worse. I can’t go upstairs without getting out of breath. I get fatigue so intense there are days I just can’t do much. And I fall down—I’ll be out walking and suddenly I fall.” Together with her friend Anne Rabe, 49, a campaigner against N.L. since the 1980s, she has sent questionnaires to as many of the people who lived on the streets close to the plant as possible. So far, they have almost 400 replies.
Among those who responded were people with rare cancers or cancers that appeared
TANKS SHOT UP BY D.U. MUNITIONS WERE REMOVED,” WEYMAN SAYS, “I SAW NO PRECAUTIONS BEING TAKEN AT ALL."
At an unusually young age, and families whose children had birth defects. There were 17 cases of kidney problems, 15 of lung cancer, and 11 of leukemia There were also five thyroid cancers and 16 examples of other thyroid problems - all conditions associated with radiation. Other people described symptoms similar to Herr’s. Altogether, 174 of those in the sample had been diagnosed with one kind of cancer or another. American women have about a 33 percent chance of getting cancer in their lifetimes, mostly after the age of 60. (For men, it’s nearly 50 percent.) Some of the Colonie cancer victims are two decades younger. “We have what look like possible suspicious clusters,” says Rabe. ‘~A health study here is a perfect opportunity to see how harmful this stuff really is.”
On June 14,2004, the army’s Physical Evaluation Board, the body that decides whether a soldier should get sickness pay, convened to evaluate the case of Raymond Ramos of the 442nd Military Police company. It followed the Pentagon’s approach, not Dr. Durakovic’s. The board examined his Walter Reed medical-file summary, which describes his symptoms in detail, suggests that they may have been caused by serving in Iraq, and accepts that “achieving a cure is not a realistic treatment objective.” But the summary mentions no physical reason for them at all, let alone depleted uranium.
Like many veterans of the first Gulf War, Ramos was told by the board that his disability had been caused primarily by post-traumatic stress. It did not derive “from injury or disease received in the line of duty as a direct result of armed conflict.” Instead, his record says, he got “scared in the midst of a riot” and was “emotionally upset by reports of battle casualties.” Although he was too sick to go back to work as a narcotics cop, he would get a disability benefit fixed at $1,197 a month, just 30 percent of his basic military pay.
On the day we meet, in September 2004, his symptoms are hardly alleviated. “I’m in lots of pain in my joints. I’m constantly fatigued— I can fall asleep at the drop of a dime. My wife tells me things and I just forget. It’s not fair to my family.”
For the time being, the case against D.U. appears to remain unproved. But if Asaf Durakovic, Doug Rokke, and their many allies around the world are right, and the Pentagon wrong, the costs—human, legal, and financial—will be incalculable. They may also be widespread. In October, the regional health authority of Sardinia, Italy, began hearings to investigate illnesses suffered by people who live near a U.S. firing range there that tests D.U. weapons.
In 2002 the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights declared that depleted uranium was a weapon of mass destruction, and its use a breach of international law. But the difference between D.U. and the W.M.D. that formed the rationale for the Iraqi invasion is that depleted uranium may have a boomerang effect, afflicting the soldiers of the army that fires it as well as the enemy victims of “lethality overmatch.”
The four members of the 442nd who tested positive all say they have met soldiers from other units during their medical treatment who complain of similar ailments, and fear that they too may have been exposed. “It’s bad enough being sent out there knowing you could be killed in combat,” Raymond Ramos says. “But people are at risk of bringing something back that might kill them slowly. That’s not right.”