Seven years ago, U.S. troops nervously waiting for the order to take on Saddam Hussein's army frequently joked that the allies should just "nuke 'em" and get it over with.
They didn't have a clue that thousands - as many as three-quarters of the troops there - soon would get nuked by their own weapons.
Spc. John Moore of Fairview Heights didn't when he watched the engineers in his Army battalion finish blowing up Iraqi vehicles that had been disabled by American M1A1 Abrams tanks and A-10 "Warthog" attack planes.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon admitted for the first time that the failure to warn troops in the Persian Gulf War about the dangers of depleted uranium "may have resulted in thousands of unnecessary exposures."
But they didn't say how many.
Depleted uranium is a waste product of the nuclear industry that weapons designers in the 1970s discovered could be used to make incredibly effective anti-tank ammunition.
Veterans' advocates, including Capt. Doug Rokke, say that as many as 75 percent of the 700,000 troops who served in the gulf might be facing health problems because U.S. and British anti-tank ammunition fired during the war released up to 300 tons of uranium dust.
"Man, they were blowing DU (depleted uranium) all over hell," Rokke said.
"Everybody and their brother was climbing and crawling on that stuff."
Rokke, who lives in Jacksonville, Ala., and was a research physicist
at the University of Illinois, was the Army's top investigator into the
dangers of depleted-uranium ammunition. Last year, he
went public with his accusations that military leaders were ignoring veterans exposed to depleted uranium seven years ago and failing to warn current troops how to protect themselves in combat.
On Jan. 7, the Pentagon ordered the Army, Navy and Air Force to begin a depleted-uranium training program developed by Rokke three years ago.
It's based on information the Pentagon had even before the Gulf War, but never passed on to the troops - that the uranium dust left behind by depleted-uranium ammunition can cause radiation-induced cancers and heavy metal poisoning if inhaled or ingested.
Moore wishes they had told him earlier.
"I don't know much about depleted uranium. The news reports are the first I've heard about it," he said.
Moore, who is the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Fairview Heights, was a medic with an engineer battalion that breached Iraqi defenses in the initial ground assault.
"We breached, we allowed the infantry and armory to pass, and once they passed, it was our job to blow up what they left behind," he said. "You're talking about a tank that's still in flames - I was within 10 feet of destroyed tanks."
Tests have shown that dangerous amounts of depleted-uranium dust
are found as far as 50 yards
from the impact.
Since the war, Moore has suffered from intestinal problems that he said
he thinks were caused by
exposure to chemical weapons. Since learning that depleted uranium attacks the kidneys and respiratory system, he is more concerned than ever.
"I just had a kidney infection, unexplained," he said. "Was it depleted uranium? I don't know. Nobody's ever tested me for that."
The General Accounting Office has criticized the Pentagon several times
since 1993 for ignoring
the dangers of depleted uranium, but until this month, the military has maintained the only people exposed were a few dozen veterans involved in friendly fire episodes.
That changed Jan. 8, when the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses issued its annual report. Buried near the last page was the admission that thousands of vets might have been exposed.
"It's an area that we're looking at," Pentagon spokesman Maj. Tom Gilroy said. "To date, I don't know that anyone has found any proof that depleted uranium is what's making veterans sick."
Rokke said Gilroy is echoing a Pentagon attitude he has been fighting for years - the requirement that veterans prove nothing else could have caused their individual illnesses.
Rokke, who examined dozens of destroyed vehicles in the gulf, said he has uranium in his urine up to 280 times the normal amount. He has undergone nine kidney surgeries since the war.
"The doctor said today that from the tests he's done, it's obvious I have metal poisoning, and that's the only place it could come from," he said.
Gilroy said the Pentagon plans to submit a series of possible depleted-uranium exposure scenarios to the Army's Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine. The center then will conduct tests to estimate dose rates for each scenario.
But there aren't any plans to ask veterans to come in for testing, or even to notify them about possible exposures, as was done last year for 100,000 veterans who might have been near Iraqi chemical weapons when they were blown up.
"You tell me how you would know who to contact?" Gilroy said. "You could have people who were exposed because they were sitting on a tank."
James Moss, a scientist who has been researching Gulf War illnesses, said the Pentagon needs to act if it wants to restore the credibility it has lost with veterans.
"I think it's about time the Department of Defense bought some prime-time network ad time and urged all Persian Gulf vets to have a national registry exam," he said. "This is way overdue and is the real outreach the various (congressional and presidential) committees keep talking about."
Moore, the Fairview Heights vet, said that unless the government improves the way it responds to veterans, the registries are a waste of time.
"I took that physical and it was a joke," he said of the Comprehensive
Clinical Evaluation Program. "It was for statistical purposes only. It
Originally Published, January 18, 1998, Belleville News Democrat,
(c) 1998, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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