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Pentagon Poison: The Great Radioactive Ammo Cover-Up

Author: By Bill Mesler
Publication: The Nation
Document Dated: May 13, 1997
Date Posted: May 13, 1997

Rounds made of depleted uranium have exposed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of G.I.s to radiation without warning -- here's evidence the army knew the danger.

There were five of them. Small, BB-shaped pellets, shrapnel from wounds Jerry Wheat suffered in the Gulf War in 1991. They were lodged in the back of his neck and in his right shoulder. It took six months for them to worm their way close enough to the surface of his skin to be squeezed out. Wheat never paid much attention to the little pellets. Not until his father, an industrial hygienist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, took them to work, measured them with a Geiger counter and discovered they were pieces of uranium-238, a radioactive and toxic byproduct of the process used to make fuel for nuclear weapons and reactors. For the first time in battle, the United States had used radioactive ammunition -- poisoning an unknown number of our own soldiers in addition to the Kuwaiti and Iraqi environment, a story the Pentagon is doing its best to keep quiet but for which a Nation investigation has found abundant evidence.

In fact, extensive interviews with exposed soldiers and veterans' doctors, government documents obtained by The Nation and results of emerging medical research show that the Pentagon knew as early as 1990 of the dangers of its new antitank ammunition made of uranium-238, or depleted uranium (D.U.), but was mainly worried about bad P.R.; that soldiers in the Gulf War were not warned of its toxicity; that hundreds and perhaps thousands of G.I.s were exposed; that the Pentagon at least once rephrased description of this ammunition to hide its radioactivity; that researchers are on the verge of publishing a study documenting a strong connection to cancer; that at least one former Veterans Affairs doctor accuses the V.A. of engaging in a "conspiracy of silence"; and that, six years after the last rounds were fired in the Gulf, concern among veterans has convinced Congressional investigators exploring the causes of Gulf War Syndrome to begin calling for testimony on D.U. next month.

U.S. forces quietly began introducing D.U. rounds into their arsenals in the late seventies but never fired a round in combat before the Gulf War. It turned out to be the most devastating tank-killing ammunition ever used on a battlefield, accounting for about one-third of all Iraqi tank kills. "By using these D.U. weapon systems, the Army gave its soldiers better protection from enemy action and greater confidence in their ability to engage in and survive combat," Department of Defense spokesman Bryan Whitman told The Nation. But the use of D.U. weapons also left behind a host of problems the Pentagon did not foresee. What do you do with the tons of radioactive waste left behind? What do you tell soldiers exposed to burning D.U. rounds? And what do you tell at least thirty-three U.S. veterans who, like Wheat, were left with D.U. shrapnel wounds?

The last question is the one researchers at the Defense Department's Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute (AFRRI) in Bethesda, Maryland, are trying to answer. AFRRI scientists have been trying to determine the effects of embedded D.U. by inserting shrapnel-like pellets of the substance into the legs of rats. According to abstracts of preliminary results of the studies obtained by The Nation, AFRRI scientists have discovered that D.U. leads to the occurrence of oncogenes, tumorous growths believed to be the precursors to cancerous growth in cells, and that it kills suppressor genes. They also found that embedded D.U., unlike most metals, dissolves and is spread through the body, depositing itself in organs like the spleen and the brain; and that a pregnant female rat will pass depleted uranium along to a developing fetus.

Some of the results have been presented to the American Association for Cancer Research and the Society of Toxicology; more is being submitted to the scientific journal Nature this month. Researchers stress that their work is only preliminary. But Dr. David Livengood, the chairman of the department of cellular radiobiology at AFRRI, said, "We were particularly surprised at how quickly we found oncogenes."

Despite the significance of their discoveries, the research has so far drawn scant attention. Money for the studies will run out later this year, and no new appropriations are on the horizon, although scientists are trying to find out more about the interrelationship between uranium's radioactivity and its toxicity (uranium is both a toxic heavy metal and radioactive) and to develop new ways to test for uranium in the human body.

"Even if we would never use it [D.U.] again, other potential enemies will," said Livengood. "And we have to be prepared to know what to do with injured individuals. What do we say, for instance, to a woman with D.U. fragments in her who wants to know if she can safely have children? Nobody knows." He speaks urgently of the need for further study.

So does Jerry Wheat. During the Gulf War, Wheat drove a Bradley armored personnel carrier for the Third Armored Division and won a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Twice Wheat was knocked unconscious when his vehicle was hit by Iraqi rounds. The Iraqi fire caused the Bradley's own ammunition to explode, leaving him with D.U. shrapnel. Wheat came home from the Persian Gulf a hero, but also sick. "I had these stomach cramps that went on real severe for about six weeks," says Wheat, who used to weigh 220 pounds and now weighs 160. "I couldn't hold anything in me, couldn't eat any food. I still have stomach trouble. And now I have joint pains, fatigue. My bones won't heal right. I broke my collarbone last year and it still hasn't healed."

Wheat believes his ailments are related to the unexplained symptoms reported by other veterans, which have come to be known as Gulf War Syndrome. Since his father's discovery in 1993 that his shrapnel wounds were from D.U., Wheat has been part of a D.U. monitoring program run by the Veterans Affairs Department. Doctors at the V.A. hospital in Baltimore are following closely the health of Wheat and nearly three dozen other veterans known to have suffered D.U. shrapnel wounds.

Nobody at the V.A. told Wheat about the preliminary results of the animal studies at AFRRI, even though he and other vets in the D.U. program were recently flown to Baltimore for a round of testing. "They have a real good way of covering stuff up," said Wheat, who never would have learned his shrapnel was D.U. if his father hadn't taken the initiative to check it with a Geiger counter. "I never even heard of depleted uranium until 1993. They've never warned me about anything at all."

Wheat and those in the D.U. shrapnel program aren't the only veterans concerned about D.U. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of vets inhaled or ingested depleted uranium when they were exposed to burning D.U. rounds or when they entered vehicles that had been hit by D.U. [see Mesler, "The Pentagon's Radioactive Bullet," October 21, 1996]. Private Mark Panzera and the rest of the troops in the 144th National Guard Supply Company were stationed at King Khalid Military City in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. After the war his unit prepared damaged U.S. military equipment and vehicles for shipping back to the United States. Among the vehicles were sixteen M1 Abrams tanks that had been hit by "friendly fire" D.U. rounds. According to a report on D.U. released in 1995 by the Army Environmental Policy Institute, twenty-six members of the company worked inside these tanks without knowing of the risks posed by D.U. About three weeks later, an Army radiological team in radiation-protection suits arrived and measured the tanks with Geiger counters. They marked the vehicles with radiation symbols and covered them with tarps. Soldiers were then warned that the vehicles were "hot," meaning radioactive, and told to wear protective anti-chemical gear before entering them.

But Panzera said members of his unit weren't really made aware of the danger and continued to work in the tanks without masks, as they had done before. "It gets really hot out there," he said. "And when you're inside a tank, well, it's hard to work with protection like that." The soldiers were later given letters certifying they were exposed to uranium in the Persian Gulf; the tanks were buried in a South Carolina radioactive waste dump.

In 1992 Panzera started having kidney problems. Sharp pains landed him in emergency rooms. He started having trouble urinating and sometimes passed blood. Now 33, the Gulf War veteran is about to have his third kidney operation and has developed respiratory problems, including chronic bronchitis.

When Dr. Asaf Durakovic was chief of nuclear medicine at the V.A. hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, he was charged with setting up specialized diagnostic tests for Panzera and other members of the 144th. Durakovic thinks Panzera's kidney problems are related to his inhalation of D.U. (What makes depleted uranium so effective as a weapon is also what makes it dangerous: It burns on impact, creating smoke and dust that is both carcinogenic and toxic, especially to the kidneys.) But the real threat facing Panzera and other vets who inhaled depleted uranium, according to Durakovic, is an increase in their rates of cancer several years down the road -- and the number of veterans facing such risks far exceeds the numbers the Pentagon or the V.A. have admitted to so far.

"My soldiers [in the 144th] spent eight months in those tanks and are the most at risk," said Durakovic. "But we are talking about 1,400 Iraqi tanks being destroyed by uranium shells. We are talking about several dozen U.S. vehicles being destroyed by so-called friendly fire. Anyone who was exposed to those tanks can be at risk."

Just how many U.S. soldiers unknowingly entered vehicles hit by D.U.? Gulf War veterans groups estimate that thousands of advancing ground troops entered disabled vehicles out of curiosity, if nothing else. Dan Fahey, a former naval officer who served in the Persian Gulf and an outreach worker with the veterans' service organization Swords to Plowshares, claims "those soldiers were just as contaminated as the soldiers in the 144th."

The V.A. has done little to inform veterans of possible exposure to D.U. or to warn of potential problems. A Gulf War Syndrome questionnaire sent to thousands of vets simply asks if they were exposed to "depleted uranium," without mentioning that D.U. was used in U.S. antitank rounds. Some G.I. advocates think veterans who respond negatively are signing away any chance of receiving compensation for future medical problems. Veterans who do express concern over exposure to D.U. are given urinalysis by the V.A., although every expert contacted by The Nation said that a urinalysis would be useless unless administered within a year of the exposure. A spokesman for V.A. Secretary Jesse Brown did not respond to several faxed questions on the subject.

Durakovic accused the V.A. of engaging in a "conspiracy of silence" to avoid being held liable for veterans who develop cancer in the future. He thinks the Pentagon has put pressure on the V.A. to keep the lid on D.U. because the Army is afraid of eventually being held responsible for the cost of cleaning up the D.U. left behind in the Persian Gulf. The doctor does seem to have a bone to pick with the V.A., which "downsized" him out of a job earlier this year. But Dr. Harvey Ziessman, director of nuclear medicine at Georgetown University Hospital, said Durakovic is "someone I respect and has a lot of experience in this area [internal exposure to radiation]. I certainly would listen to him."

Indeed, Army documents obtained by The Nation show that as far back as 1990, the Pentagon was aware of concerns over the health effects and environmental impact of D.U., concerns that could make the weapon "politically unacceptable" and force the military to stop using what planners expected to be a revolutionary new weapon. One report completed by the Army's AMCCOM (radiological) task group noted that "long term effects of low doses [of D.U.] have been implicated in cancer...there is no dose so low that the probability of effect is zero." The report went on to recommend that the Army engage in "public relations efforts" to prevent a possible "adverse international reaction."

Another memo, written just after the Gulf War, stated: "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...we should assure their future existence (until something better is developed) through Service/DOD proponency." The memo was written by an officer to the studies and analysis branch of Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was later asked to provide one of only three experts that gave public testimony on D.U. before the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses. A second member was provided by fellow facility Lawrence Livermore. The panel gave D.U. a relatively clean bill of health but, as Tod Ensign, director of the advocacy group Citizen Soldier, observes, "Asking D.O.D.-connected scientists to give objective testimony on D.U. is like going to Manville and asking them if there was any danger in asbestos, twenty years ago."

Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman had no comment when asked about the memo or the AMCCOM report. The department's reluctance to address the documents was blasted by John Muckelbauer, the V.F.W.'s national coordinator for Persian Gulf issues. "Telling a research group to focus on 'proponency' is the height of arrogance," said Muckelbauer.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Michael Rotko, special counsel for a Senate investigative unit on the Gulf War. "We're concerned about two aspects about D.U. right now," he said. "One is its relation as a cause of so-called Gulf War Syndrome. The other issue is whether or not this is a weapon we can use safely and not endanger our troops in the future."

The House Subcommittee on Human Resources will probably begin hearing public testimony on the D.U. issue in June. Spokesman Robert Newman said, "We think it may be a factor in the illnesses of many of these veterans. For seven hearings we've been trying to establish that the D.O.D. and the C.I.A. knew there were chemical weapons exposures. Having broken that dam, we are moving on to other concerns, and D.U. is certainly one of them. There has already been an international outcry."

Newman was referring to the scandal that erupted in Japan this past February after the U.S. military command there admitted U.S. forces had test-fired and left behind a small amount of depleted uranium rounds on a tiny, uninhabited island near Okinawa. Despite the insistence of U.S. officials that D.U. was no more dangerous than "a 1950s TV set," the Japanese Diet roundly condemned the action. The Diet also asked for and received an official apology and a promise not to use D.U. in the future.

It is unclear on how many overseas bases the Pentagon test-fired D.U. But after the Japanese experience, it looks like the Army is going through pains to mask its overseas use of D.U. In Panama, for instance, at least one draft environmental impact report on a base U.S. forces are leaving was altered to mask the use of D.U. An early version of the report obtained by the Fellowship of Reconciliation describes the use on the base of "depleted uranium projectiles." But in the final version, the munitions are described as "non-explosive anti-tank projectiles."

The U.S. Army isn't the only one with D.U. overseas. Since the Gulf War, other militaries have expanded their arsenals to include D.U. Many, particularly smaller nations, bought D.U. weapons from the United States, including Thailand, Taiwan, Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Korea, Turkey and Kuwait. Britain and France have purchased large quantities of raw D.U. for use in their weapons programs, and the Russians have developed D.U. munitions of their own.

The proliferation of D.U. arms has sparked concern at the United Nations. Last August, Margaret Papandreou, the former first lady of Greece, led a delegation to the U.N. calling for the lifting of sanctions against Iraq and an investigation into Iraqi claims of increased cancer rates in the Basra region that Iraqis attribute to the 300 to 800 tons of D.U. left behind by U.S. forces. The U.N. Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities passed a resolution that includes language calling for a prohibition on the use of depleted uranium; only the U.S. representative voted against it. The full U.N. Human Rights Commission is now taking testimony on D.U. and is expected to release a report sometime this summer.

Gulf War vets like Michael Florez, who just found out about the Pentagon's use of D.U. last year, wish the issue would get as much attention in the United States. Florez, a private in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, arrived in Saudi Arabia in May 1991. His unit was eventually moved to the Army's Blackhorse base at Doha, just outside Kuwait City. On July 11, a fire ripped through the base's motor pool area and started a four-hour chain of explosions as nearby ammunition dumps caught fire. "I was about 400 yards from the first vehicle that caught fire," says Florez. "Soon, we were looking up at a big mushroom cloud. It was raining metal and fire."

The next day, Florez's unit was ordered to clean up the motor pool area that had first been cleared of all unexploded ordnance. "We were not informed of any D.U. contamination," says Florez. "Next to our water coolers were five or six fifty-gallon drums that didn't have lids. Two water coolers were on top of the drums that had lids. Just by chance after I had filled up my canteen, I noticed inside the barrel were all these rods. I did not find out they were D.U. rounds until 1996." A couple of hours later four officers drove up and ordered the soldiers to move the water coolers. "They then sealed the water coolers and put that radioactive sign on them," says Florez. "I didn't think too much of it at the time."

When Florez left the Army in July 1994, he and his wife decided to have a second child. They had twins, Jason and Jeremy. Jeremy was born with a birth defect. "On his left arm, about one and a half inches past the elbow joint, the arm stopped growing," says Florez. "There is no hand. It looks like an amputation." Florez believes the problem was caused by his exposure to uranium in the Persian Gulf. "All I want is for them to test me," he says. "That won't bring my son's arm back. But I think it may give them second thoughts about using [D.U.] again. I wouldn't wish this on anyone."

Bill Mesler is a reporter working with the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute and a consultant on a documentary on D.U. weapons being produced by Gabriel Films for the Arts and Entertainment television network and Channel 4 in England.

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