Thursday, August 10, 2006
This is what Bush's war is doing to our soldiers
Are depleted uranium weapons, America’s newest armaments, sickening U.S. troops?
By DEBORAH HASTINGS
AP National Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — It takes at least 10 minutes and a large glass of orange juice to wash down all the pills — morphine, methadone, a muscle relaxant, an antidepressant, a stool softener. Viagra for sexual dysfunction. Valium for his nerves.
Four hours later, Herbert Reed will swallow another 15 mg of morphine to cut the pain clenching every part of his body. He will do it twice more before the day is done.
Since he left a bombed-out train depot in Iraq, his gums bleed. There is more blood in his urine, and still more in his stool. Bright light hurts his eyes. A tumor has been removed from his thyroid. Rashes erupt everywhere, itching so badly they seem to live inside his skin. Migraines cleave his skull. His joints ache, grating like door hinges in need of oil.
There is something massively wrong with Herbert Reed, though no one is sure what it is. He believes, but cannot convince anyone caring for him, that the military’s new favorite weapon has made him terrifyingly sick.
In the sprawling bureaucracy of the Department of Veterans Affairs, he has many caretakers. An internist, a neurologist, a pain-management specialist, a psychologist, an orthopedic surgeon and a dermatologist. He cannot function without his stupefying arsenal of medications, but they exact a high price.
“I’m just a zombie walking around,” he says.
Reed believes depleted uranium has contaminated him. He now walks point in a vitriolic war over the Pentagon’s arsenal of it — thousands of shells and hundreds of tanks coated with the metal that is radioactive, chemically toxic, and nearly twice as dense as lead.
A shell coated with depleted uranium pierces a tank like a hot knife through butter. As tank armor, it repels artillery assaults. It also leaves behind a fine radioactive dust with a half-life of 4.5 billion years.
Depleted uranium is the garbage left from producing enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and energy plants. It is 60 percent as radioactive as natural uranium. The U.S. has an estimated 1.5 billion pounds of it, sitting in hazardous storage sites across the country. Meaning it is plentiful and cheap as well as highly effective.
Reed says he unknowingly breathed DU dust while living with his unit in Samawah, Iraq. He was med-evaced out in 2003 because of herniated spinal discs. Then began a strange series of symptoms he’d never experienced in his previously healthy life.
At Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., he ran into a buddy from his unit. And another and another. In the tedium of hospital life between doctor visits and the dispensing of meds, they began to talk.
“We all had migraines. We all felt sick,” Reed says. “The doctors said, ’It’s all in your head.’ “
Then the medic from their unit showed up. He too, was suffering. That made eight sick soldiers from the 442nd Military Police, an Army National Guard unit of mostly cops and correctional officers from the New York area.
But the medic knew something the others didn’t.
Dutch marines had taken over the abandoned train depot dubbed Camp Smitty, which was surrounded by tank skeletons, and unexploded ordnance. They’d brought radiation-detection devices. The readings were so hot, the Dutch set up camp in the middle of the desert rather than live in the station ruins.
“We got on the Internet,” Reed said, “and we started researching depleted uranium.”
Then they hired a lawyer.
Reed, Gerard Matthew, Raymond Ramos, Hector Vega, Augustin Matos, Anthony Yonnone, Jerry Ojeda and Anthony Phillip all have depleted uranium in their urine, according to tests available only overseas.
In December 2003, their samples were sent to Germany, where they were analyzed by a Frankfurt professor who developed a depleted uranium test with Randall Parrish, a professor of isotope geology at the University of Leicester in Britain.
The veterans, using their positive results as evidence, have sued the U.S. Army, claiming officials knew the hazards of depleted uranium, but concealed the risks.
The Department of Defense says depleted uranium is powerful and safe, and not that worrisome.
Four of the highest-registering samples from Frankfurt were sent to the VA. The results came back negative, Reed said. “Their test just isn’t as sophisticated,” he said.
The VA’s testing methodology is safe and accurate, the agency says. More than 2,100 soldiers from the current war have asked to be tested; only 8 had DU in their urine, the VA said.
The term depleted uranium is linguistically radioactive. Simply uttering the words can prompt a reaction akin to preaching atheism at a tent revival. Heads shake, eyes roll, opinions are yelled from all sides.
“The Department of Defense takes the position that you can eat it for breakfast and it poses no threat at all,” said Steve Robinson of the National Gulf War Resource Center, which helps veterans with various problems, including navigating the labyrinth of VA health care. “Then you have far-left groups that ... declare it a crime against humanity.”
An estimated 286 tons of DU munitions were fired by the U.S. in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991. An estimated 130 tons were shot toppling Saddam Hussein.
At the other end are a collection of conspiracy-theorists and Internet proselytizers who say using such weapons constitutes genocide.
There are several studies on how DU affects animals, though their results are not, of course, directly applicable to humans. Military research on mice shows that depleted uranium can enter the bloodstream and come to rest in bones, the brain, kidneys and lymph nodes. Other research in rats shows that DU can result in cancerous tumors and genetic mutations, and pass from mother to offspring, resulting in birth defects.
Iraqi doctors reported significant increases in birth defects and childhood cancers after the 1991 invasion.
Depleted uranium can contaminate soil and water, and coat buildings with radioactive dust.
In 2005, the U.N. Environmental Program identified 311 polluted sites in Iraq. Cleaning them will take at least $40 million and several years, the agency said.
Fifteen years after it was first used in battle, there is only one U.S. government study monitoring veterans exposed to depleted uranium.
Number of soldiers in the survey: 32. Number of soldiers in both Iraq wars: more than 900,000.
The study group’s size is controversial — far too small, say some experts — and so are the findings of the voluntary, Baltimore-based study.
It will take years to determine to what extent depleted uranium affected soldiers from this war. After Vietnam, veterans, in numbers that grew with the passage of time, complained of joint aches, night sweats, bloody feces, migraine headaches, unexplained rashes and violent behavior; some developed cancers.
It took more than 25 years for the Pentagon to acknowledge that Agent Orange — a corrosive defoliant used to melt the jungles of Vietnam and flush out the enemy — was linked to those sufferings.
Herbert Reed is an imposing man, broad shouldered and tall. He strides into the VA Medical Center in the Bronx with the presence of a cop or a soldier. Since the Vietnam War, he has been both.
His hair is perfect, his shirt spotless, his jeans sharply creased. But there is something wrong, an imperfection made more noticeable by a bearing so disciplined. It is a limp — more like a hitch in his get-along.
It is the only sign, albeit a tiny one, that he is extremely sick.
Sleep offers no release. He dreams of gunfire and bombs and soldiers who scream for help. He never gets there in time.
At 54, he is a veteran of two wars and a 20-year veteran of the New York Police Department.
He was in perfect health, he says, before being deployed to Iraq.
According to military guidelines, he should have heard the words depleted uranium long before he ended up at Walter Reed. He should have been trained about its dangers, and how to avoid prolonged exposure to its toxicity and radioactivity.
Reed and the seven others from his unit hate what has happened to them, and they speak of it at public seminars and in politicians’ offices. It is something no VA doctor can explain. They feel like spent rounds, kicked to the side of battle.
They feel like men who once were warriors and now are old before their time because of a multitude of miseries that has no name.