Q. Where in the world did you get that bizarre story about the U.S. exposing its own troops to radioactive material?
A. It is pretty bizarre, isn’t it? The really bizarre thing is that it’s true, and nobody wants to talk about it.
Q. Do you expect us to believe some cock-and-bull story like that cooked up by the fringe elements of the protest movement?
A. The first “fringe element” that’s a source for the story is the Department of Defense. According to the Pentagon, 940,000 shells containing more than 320 TONS of depleted uranium were fired during Gulf War I. And it’s being used again, in Gulf War II, even as we speak.
Q. So? This stuff is “depleted.” That means its safe.
A. Wishful thinking. Depleted uranium is material left over from the production of enriched fuel for nuclear reactors, and it’s mostly made up of the uranium isotope U-238. It’s labeled “depleted” because it’s low in U-235, the fissionable material. But it’s still highly radioactive, and still very deadly.
Q. Why deadly? These aren’t atomic bombs you’re talking about.
A. Right, these aren’t atomic bombs. They’re the shell cases for things like antitank weapons. The military loves shells made out of depleted uranium because they’re so dense that they pack a tremendous wallop. They punch a hole in armor that conventional materials can’t begin to penetrate. Every tank round fired contains ten pounds of solid U-238 laced with plutonium, neptunium, and americium.
When these depleted uranium shells hit something and explode, 70% or more of the uranium is vaporized into tiny particles less than five microns in diameter. Those tiny particles go airborne, and can travel enormous distances. They can also be readily inhaled by human beings. The rest of the uranium becomes uranium fragments or uranium oxide dust. The dust can also be inhaled, or can enter the body through a cut or wound. The soluble part gets into your blood stream, and travels to your organs. The insoluble parts you inhale stay in your lungs.
Q. Why worry? The stuff has probably all blown away by now.
A. Blown where? This stuff doesn’t last forever, but in human terms, it’s close. It has a half-life of four and a half BILLION years. The Atomic Energy Authority of the UK estimated in 1991 that if particles from 8% of the DU exploded in the Gulf were inhaled, as many as 300,000 deaths would result. We have contaminated parts of the Iraqi landscape almost into eternity. It’s deadly for the Iraqi people living there, and most deadly for children. And it’s deadly for the U.S. troops there as well.
Q. Look, if this stuff were really as dangerous as you’re implying, lots of people would be getting sick from it.
A. Well, you hate to talk about the hell that individual people suffer through in terms of statistics, but the British Medical Journal published figures showing a sevenfold increase in the incidence of cancer in Southern Iraq when they compared 1989 pre-war figures with post-war figures from 1994.
The really scary part is that, generally, these aren’t dosages that sicken and kill you today, or within a week. The time frame is longer than that. But eventually, many people who were exposed will sicken and perhaps die. The time lapse helps hide what really happened. Consider this. We congratulated ourselves when Gulf War I ended, in the fall of 1991, on how few casualties we had suffered. A grand total of 760. Only 294 deaths, and the rest sick or wounded. But do you know the casualty total now from that war?
Q. Casualty total “now”?
A. “Now” because the damage is ongoing. Over 221,000 Gulf War I veterans have been awarded disability—a casualty rate of almost 30%! That’s according to a report issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs in September of 2002. Imagine. In eleven short years, thirty percent of young men and women who were carefully selected from the population as sound specimens, physically and mentally, have become disabled. And it doesn’t stop with them. Radioactivity affected many of them genetically. The chances that a male soldier who served in Gulf War I will father a child with a birth defect is almost twice the national average; for female soldiers, chances are almost three times the national average.
Q. What kind of illnesses factor into these casualties you’re talking about?
A. Cancers. Strange rashes and sores. Leukemia. Respiratory problems. Neurological disorders. Unexplained bleeding. Fibromyalgia. Eye cataracts. Birth defects. Typical consequences of radiation exposure. Of course nobody is claiming that depleted uranium caused ALL those casualties. We “destroyed” Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” in 1991 by blowing up chemical stockpiles, biological stores, and nuclear reactors in place. That released an incredible witches’ brew into the atmosphere. God only knows what people breathed in, what contaminated the water and soil.
Q. I don’t think you should bring this up when people here are already worrying about their family members serving in the Gulf. Now they’ll be scared that their family members will be contaminated and get sick even if they get return home safe and sound.
A. I’m sorry for any worry or pain people suffer from getting this information. But having the information may help people down the road understand what might otherwise be strange, baffling illnesses. If we’re going to eliminate these monstrous weapons, and save lives in the future, people have to know about the dangers they pose. How can we in good conscience ignore them?
A good deal of the information circulating now about DU weapons comes from the man who probably knows them best—Doug Rokke. He’s been a military man for over 35 years, he served in Vietnam as a bombardier, and—most importantly—he was Director of the Army’s Depleted Uranium Project. He’s traveling around the country trying to alert people to the danger of DU weapons.
In brief, here’s what he has to say: “The US Army made me their expert. I went into the project with the total intent to ensure they could use uranium munitions in war, because I'm a warrior. What I saw as director of the project, doing the research, and working with my own medical conditions and everybody else's, led me to one conclusion: uranium munitions must be banned from the planet, for eternity…”
© Tony Russell, 2003