Casualties Not Mentioned
March 10 is the twelfth anniversary of one of the largest friendly-fire disasters in history. Seven days after the end of the Gulf War the U.S. military blew up a munitions facility in southern Iraq called Khamisiyah. They released a chemical plume of sarin and cyclosarin nerve agents over 130,000 U.S. soldiers and an unknown number of Iraqis. The low level exposure to the nerve agents is gradually being admitted as a prime cause of the massive number of illnesses suffered by U.S. troops in the Gulf War.
I don't use the word massive lightly. The official Veterans Administration GWVIS report of September 2002 states that 159,238 soldiers who were in the Gulf in 1990-91 are disabled. Of that number over 111,000 are 10% or more disabled. 8,000 Gulf War vets have died. You won't find any of these numbers in the articles about Gulf War illnesses being printed all over in the major newspapers in the last few weeks.
At a Veterans Day event at Yale I met one of those injured vets, Major Doug Rokke (Ret.). He suffers from uranium poisoning. He was in charge of a unit dealing with the Gulf War soldiers and vehicles which were contaminated from "friendly fire" shelling. Of the 100 men and women in his decontamination unit, 30 have died and all but one is sick.
Major Rokke has top-notch credentials. He served as health physicist for the U.S. Army Depleted Uranium Assessment team in Iraq. He directed development of radiation and safety education and field procedures at the Bradley Radiological Laboratories. He's got a doctorate. He also has a 40% army disability because the uranium in his urine is 5000 times the permissible level. The former skier now has trouble breathing.
In 1991 his team was brought in to cleanup contamination caused when U.S. troops fired DU weapons accidentally against U.S. troops ("friendly fire" casualties). DU is basically reprocessed nuclear waste. No one told him how dangerous this would be. His team went into smashed up tanks without radiological protective suits. Within 72 hours they were getting sick, respiratory problems, rashes that bled. Over the years team members died. Rokke says they were abandoned by the Defense Department. Rokke himself was fired from his job at Bradley Labs in 1996 after he wrote a report saying the Army had huge liability for contamination from a base in Alabama.
We're led to believe that Gulf War casualties were minimal. At the close of the fighting in 1991 less than 800 were killed and wounded. But first a trickle and then a river of American soldiers have gotten sick. The enormous number of casualties is not confined to soldiers who fought in the Gulf War. The V.A. has awarded disability to another 60,000 soldiers who went into the Gulf countries after the war was over. (VA report) These are considered "theater" veterans. 2,000 Gulf War "theater" veterans have died. This is all very alarming. It means that the Gulf area (Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia) is still highly contaminated. The chief suspect is DU, "depleted uranium".
Rokke says the name is a mistake. "There's nothing depleted about it". He says the dangerous "alpha proportion" actually goes up in the processing. Over 900,000 DU projectiles were fired during the Gulf War. When the weapons hit, about half of the uranium was released as tiny particles. The radioactivity in them lasts practically forever.
Rokke is scathingly critical of authorities. For years Gulf War illnesses were dismissed as mental problems due to stress. Only 400 Gulf War veterans have ever been tested for uranium poisoning. Rokke had his own radiological-biological assay done in 1994, but doctors didn't tell him of the dangerous uranium levels in his body for 2 ½ years and he was director of the project! (Rokke bio).
There's plenty of questions the VA report doesn't cover. Like how many of the disabled are 30%, disabled, 50% disabled or 100% disabled. The report doesn't' even say what the disabilities are. We're not talking about many people with lost limbs, after all. I tried unsuccessfully to find more information. The VA division that printed the report has a jawbreaker of a name: "Office of Performance Analysis and Integrity Data and Information Services". When I called the VA in Washington no one had heard of the division and no one could tell me how to find it.
According to the British press DU will certainly be used in the next invasion of Iraq. The Herald (Scotland) January 22 reported that two British armored regiments will be using DU anti-tank shell. The British have brought tungsten-tipped shells in response to criticism by veterans groups but it won't abandon DU. The article mentions that one reason that DU is so popular is because it's virtually free. It's made of the unwanted waste of the atomic energy agency.
DU isn't the only culprit suspected in Gulf War illnesses. There are also the PB pills that were supposed to ward off some effects of sarin gas. There's the anti-anthrax shots that soldiers were forced to take. These "medicines" made many GIs sick immediately and are thought to be part of the toxic mix that disabled so many soldiers.
Obsessed with hopes for a quick triumph and low body counts, the U.S. military fought the Gulf War without calculating the long-term effects on its soldiers of its hi-tech weapons and "miracle" pharmaceuticals. Now the politicians are again sending the troops into harm's way. U.S. parents will be gambling that the military brass that failed so wretchedly in Desert Storm will this time protect the health of their sons and daughters. What are the odds?
Stanley Heller has been chairperson of the Middle East Crisis Committee (New Haven) since 1982. He is a moderator of al-Awda-Unity, a division of the Right to Return movement intent on encouraging Jewish activism.
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