Lori Brim cradled her son in her arms for three months before he died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Dustin Brim, a 22-year-old Army specialist had collapsed three years ago in Iraq from a very aggressive cancer that attacked his kidney, caused a mass to grow over his esophagus and collapsed a lung.
The problems she saw during her time at Walter Reed, including her son screaming in pain while doctors argued over medications, had nothing to do with mold and shabby conditions documented in recent news reports. What this mother saw was an unexplainable illness consuming her son.
And what she has learned since her son’s death is that his was not an isolated case.
Lori Brim has joined other parents, hundreds of other sick soldiers, legislators, research scientists and environmental activists who say the cause of their problems results from exposure to depleted uranium, a radioactive metal used in the manufacture of U.S. tank armor and weapon casings.
Health and environmental effects of depleted uranium are at the heart of scientific studies, a lawsuit in the New York courts and legislative bills in more than a dozen states (although not in Florida).
News stories claiming negative signs of depleted uranium’s impact, including death and birth defects, are surfacing from Australia to England to the Far East. The controversy rages within government bodies and underlies the theme of TV shows like a recent episode of the medical series “House.”
While the military continues to deny the connection of depleted uranium to sicknesses plaguing returning servicemen and women, a newly mandated study stemming from legislation signed by President Bush in October is just getting under way.
The new study, which began in March, follows several that have been completed by the military into depleted uranium, a byproduct left when enriched uranium is separated out for use in nuclear power and atomic weapons. The Department of Energy gives it to arms makers, where its extreme density is valuable in the manufacture of armor and casings.
Despite a 1996 U.N. resolution opposing its use because of discovery of health problems after the first Gulf War, the military studies have concluded there was no evidence that exposure to the metal caused illnesses.
To the military, the effectiveness of weapons and armor made with depleted uranium outweighs any residual effects. Their bottom line: Depleted uranium saves soldiers’ lives in combat.
Robert Holloway, president of Nevada Technical Associates Inc., a firm that specializes in radiation safety training, disputes any concern over depleted uranium.
“I have no financial interest in promoting depleted uranium,” Holloway wrote in an e-mail to The News-Journal. “There really is no substitute for depending on the judgment of professionals in this field.”
Holloway and others who believe depleted uranium is safe to use say the best authority in the scientific community would be individuals connected to the Health Physics Society.
Doug Craig of Ponce Inlet, a retired radiation biophysics scientist, is such a person. He doesn’t believe low doses of radiation from depleted uranium are a problem.
“Uranium occurs in a lot of places,” Craig said, “and man has been exposed to low concentrations of uranium for a long time.”
LAWS AND LAWSUITS
But Brim and others think there will not be enough known until soldiers are tested for exposure. They compare the debate over depleted uranium to the controversy surrounding Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide used to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam. Speculation over its effects continued for more than two decades before the Defense Department agreed to compensate veterans who suffered from ailments linked to its use.
Brim often comforts other mothers whose sons and daughters are suffering from unexplainable, aggressive cancers, like a Michigan mother Brim met on the Internet.
The Michigan mom says she believes malignant tumors that resulted in removal of her Marine son’s ear, ear canal and half his face may be linked to depleted uranium. But the woman asks that her name not be used because her son still is a Marine — battling cancer, not bullets. And he has not been tested for DU exposure, she says.
In addition to consoling other mothers, Brim has tried unsuccessfully to raise awareness of the issue either through legislation or a lawsuit.
She recently traveled to Tallahassee with cancer lobbyists and left plate-size booster buttons with her son’s image, trying to raise the consciousness of Florida legislators. But she says she has not been able to interest anyone in creating a bill similar to one passed last year in Connecticut — the first state law in the nation aimed at helping National Guard personnel returning from Iraq to get tested for exposure to depleted uranium.
Other veterans are seeking help from legislators in states around the country, like Melissa Sterry, 44, of Connecticut, who served during the Persian Gulf War and suffers from multiple symptoms, including chronic headaches, infections and multiple heart attacks.
Sterry is an activist who keeps track of more than a dozen states that have introduced bills. That includes her home state, where a veterans’ health registry is being created as a database for the federal government. Among the current list of states working on individual legislation, Arizona has state Rep. Albert Tom, a Democrat. For three years he introduced the issue of testing National Guardsmen, each time a bit differently. He patterned a bill after the Connecticut law this year.
“Again it was heard (in committee), but it just didn’t go anywhere,” Tom said.
Veterans might have better luck in court. Brim is closely following a trial in New York, where — despite a precedent that prevents military personnel from suing the government for injuries resulting from their service — eight National Guard veterans have won the right to be heard about their depleted uranium exposure.
One veteran in that suit, Gerard Matthew, says not only is he sick, but contends his little girl’s birth deformities are related to his exposure to depleted uranium. The deformity, Matthew said, is similar to many being reported within the Iraqi population since the first Gulf War.