The Pentagon quietly admitted this week that thousands of veterans may have been exposed to dangerous levels of depleted uranium ammunition fired by Allied weapons during the Persian Gulf War.
Since the end of the 1991 war, and as recently as August last year, defense officials have denied that the ammunition, which is both radioactive and toxic, presented a significant danger to anyone but a few dozen troops hit by friendly fire.
But on Thursday the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses released its first annual report and sent a shock wave through the veterans' community.
Buried in the back of the 32-page report is an acknowledgment that the Army had "well documented" the hazards of depleted uranium years ago, but that the information was never given to troops.
Soldiers and Marines who climbed on and crawled into destroyed Iraqi tanks never knew that their photo posing and souvenir hunting could expose them to hazardous depleted uranium dust.
"Combat troops or those carrying out support functions generally did
not know that DU contaminated equipment, such as enemy vehicles struck
by DU rounds, required
special handling," the report stated. "Similarly, few troops were told of the more serious threat of radium contamination from broken gauges on Iraq's Soviet built tanks.
"The failure to properly disseminate such information to troops at all levels may have resulted in thousands of unnecessary exposures."
Veterans' advocates said the Pentagon was forced to turn around because of the release last year of hundreds of documents showing the dangers of depleted uranium.
"This is it. The Pentagon has admitted that thousands were exposed to DU. That's what we've been working for," said Doug Rokke, a health physicist and Army Reserve captain.
Rokke was one of the Army's top experts on depleted uranium and helped develop a training program to teach troops at all levels how to protect themselves.
But the program was never implemented and, last year, Rokke went public with tests that show troops can be exposed to dangerously high levels of uranium dust when depleted uranium rounds are used.
Depleted uranium, a byproduct of nuclear reactors, was developed for use in anti-tank bullets in the 1970s.
Harder and heavier than ordinary bullets, it also ignites spontaneously when it hits armor, burning through and spraying fiery shrapnel inside the tank.
After discovering high levels of DU residue on destroyed Iraqi tanks after the war, Rokke and his fellow investigators determined the rounds also release large amounts of uranium dust on impact.
Besides a long-term risk of radiation-induced cancers, people who ingest
or inhale the dust can face heavy metal poisoning, with damage to the kidneys
Spokesman Maj. Tom Gilroy said Friday that the Pentagon soon will begin a series of studies to get a better estimate of the amounts of depleted uranium to which troops may have been exposed.
And on Wednesday, Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre ordered each of the military services to report back within 60 days on their plans for conducting depleted uranium training.
Paul Sullivan, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, praised the Pentagon for its admission but said they need to do more to find veterans who may have been exposed to depleted uranium.
"We need to make sure the veterans get the health care for toxic DU exposures," he said. "We will continue to press the Pentagon and the Veterans Administration to provide proper care for veterans."
Originally published, January 10, 1998, Belleville News-Democrat,
(c) 2000, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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