Veterans say a gathering in Washington today will expose the Pentagon's efforts to downplay the effects of deadly radioactive bullets on hundreds of thousands of Gulf War veterans.
Three veterans groups will unveil an almost 300-page report, "The Depleted Uranium Case Narrative," this morning at a news conference. Veterans say it includes about 70 newly released documents that show a seven-year effort by the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs to downplay the dangers from the almost 1 million rounds of depleted uranium anti-tank ammunition the United States fired in the Persian Gulf.
"We can show that hundreds of thousands of Gulf War veterans may have
been exposed to DU," said Dan Fahey, a Gulf War veteran and a member of
Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco-based veterans' rights group. "According
to Army Regulation 40-5,
they should have tested everybody who might have been exposed to DU and they didn't do that."
The only solution, seven years later, is to give Gulf War veterans a legal presumption that they may have been exposed to depleted uranium and provide them with medical care, Fahey said.
Similar presumption has been granted Vietnam veterans who may have been exposed to Agent Orange, a defoliant used in that war. Agent Orange veterans have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits in recent years.
"That's what we're calling for," Fahey said.
Used for the first time during the Gulf War, depleted uranium is the only ammunition able to penetrate most modern tank armor.
But now-declassified studies from before and after the war have shown that it also releases up to 70 percent of its weight as dangerous uranium dust when it hits a tank.
Inhaled, such dust can cause radiation-induced cancers and severe kidney and respiratory diseases, military studies show.
On March 1, 1991 - the day after the shooting stopped in the Gulf - a Marine officer assigned to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico sent a memorandum to Marine Corps staffers recommending they make a case for the effectiveness of depleted uranium ammunition.
"There has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment," Lt. Col. M.V. Ziehmn wrote in a memo included on the Pentagon's Gulflink Internet site. "Therefore, if no one makes a case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefield, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable and thus be deleted from the arsenal." Pentagon spokesman Maj. Tom Gilroy said that Ziehmn's statement was never an official policy.
"It sounds like that individual's personal opinion," he said.
Depleted uranium ammo proved so effective that today at least 18 nations have developed depleted uranium ammunition.
But Pentagon documents show a continuing concern for the potential health and environmental costs of depleted uranium.
They include a 1992 request by the Army's Office of the Surgeon General
to the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute to conduct a review
of the "potential health hazards (radiological and toxicological) of allowing
DU shrapnel to remain imbedded
throughout the lifetime of the soldier."
And a June 1995 report by the Army Environmental Policy Institute recommends balancing health concerns about depleted uranium against the costs of admitting them. "When DU is indicted as a causative agent for Desert Storm illness, the Army must have sufficient data to separate fiction from reality.
"Without forethought and data, the financial implications of long-term disability payments and health-care costs would be excessive."
The Army developed a depleted uranium safety training program in 1995, but it was never implemented despite orders to do so in 1996 and 1997.
On Jan. 7, the Pentagon ordered each of the services to develop plans to implement depleted uranium training.
The next day, it released a report that abandoned previous claims that only a few dozen victims of friendly fire incidents had been exposed to depleted uranium. The report acknowledged that thousands of veterans may have been exposed because of the failure to warn them about the dangers of entering vehicles destroyed by depleted uranium rounds.
That admission, and the new evidence, opens the door to government benefits, veterans said.
"It is time for Congress to pass strong legislation for veterans to be treated with a presumption of exposure," said Cathy Lemar, executive director of the Military Toxics Projects.
Originally Published, March 2, 1998, Belleville News Democrat, Belleville,
(c) 1998, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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