Mar. 16: Gulf War Veteran with Cancer Believes Illness Caused By Depleted Uranium

Duluth News Tribune

“Some science is showing that that DU, when inhaled or gets in a wound, can cause long-term health problems because it is a heavy metal and radioactive,” said Paul Sullivan, director of the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense. But he acknowledged that studies are limited.

March 16, 2008, Duluth, Minnesota – What you first notice about John Marshall is his haircut, buzzed bald on the sides and back of his head, with the top shaved in a way that suggests an arrow pointing at you. It’s unusual, and when asked about it, Marshall smiles as if to admit as much, but he says he just wanted a reminder of who he was at his strongest and most proud, a servant of his country.

“I miss the military,” he says in a slow, calm voice.

Beyond the haircut, you don’t see anything more than a 37-year-old man who looks relatively healthy, able and normal. He lives in an immaculate home in Duluth’s Riverside neighborhood. Pictures of his family are interspersed in his living room with black-and-white photos of relatives and paintings of Jesus and various saints. What you don’t see is the pain he has, which he says is constant and rumbles all over his body.

John Marshall of Duluth, a veteran from the first Gulf War, was exposed to depleted uranium from a friendly fire shell. Seventeen years later, he is completely disabled. Marshall sits in the dining room of his home in Duluth’s Riverside neighborhood with the 19 prescription drugs he has to take to manage pain and deal with the illnesses he believes are side-effects from exposure to depleted uranium. [Clint Austin / News Tribune]

“I wouldn’t wish this on anybody,” he said. “It’s tough, man. It’s tough.”

Like many veterans, his war story is at the ready, and in an instant he’ll tell you in rat-a-tat-tat cadence about when he was a 20-year-old Army corporal with visions of a lifetime in the military and was quickly moving up the ranks, despite not finishing high school.

He was serving on the front lines in the Gulf War, which lasted more than 100 days. His tour lasted just 82 hours.

Marshall was part of a nine-man Bradley Fighting Vehicle squad that on Feb. 27, 1991, was hit by a friendly fire tank shell containing depleted uranium, a radioactive metal used in U.S. weapons and armor. As he tried to make his way to an enemy bunker, he believes shrapnel containing depleted uranium pierced his back and lungs.

Marshall blames uranium he inhaled and that lodged in his lungs for numerous health problems that have left him completely disabled, ending his career in the military and requiring him to take 19 prescribed medicines.

“Once I lost my health and my career, I lost my identity as a man,” he said.

Marshall and his story stand in direct contradiction to a government study begun in 1993 of about 80 veterans exposed to depleted uranium.

“To date,” according to the military’s Force Health and Protection division Web site, “there have been no adverse clinical effects noted in these individuals related to DU; specifically, there has been no kidney damage, leukemia, bone or lung cancer, or other uranium-related health effects.”

Marshall is one of the veterans who have taken part in that study.

“This infuriates me. This whole situation just infuriates me,” he said. “All I want is for them to acknowledge this. I want validation.”

Marshall is speaking out, hoping for just that, joining a list of organizations vocal about the perceived dangers of depleted uranium. But he has an uphill battle, as the U.S. government, along with other prominent groups such as NATO and the World Health Organization, claim that depleted uranium exposure is harmless. It is a debate that recently has fallen mostly quiet, even as rounds containing depleted uranium continue to be used in Iraq and a chorus of activists call for it to be stopped.

Cancer at 20

For Marshall, the pain is often so intense that it’s a struggle to get out of bed. There are days he wants to give in to the pain and the agoraphobia brought on by his post-traumatic stress disorder. To stay busy, he said, is the only way to fight the demons that would consume him if he let them.

He is a member of 20 service organizations, ranging from the VFW to the American Legion to the Disabled American Veterans, the Duluth Memorial Hall Committee, as well as a member of the Shriners, the Scottish Rite and the council president of his church. But he is most active as commander of the Duluth Combined Honor Guard, for which he travels to 120 to 130 funerals a year to provide veterans with a military burial. His service on the honor guard has seen him at the state Capitol, where he successfully lobbied for increased funding for his volunteer group. He also has helped other veterans receive medals owed to them for their combat.

“His wellness comes from serving other veterans,” said Phil Ringstrom, a counselor with the Duluth Vets Center.

As a result, he has become one of the best-known and well-respected members of the Duluth veteran’s community.

“He’s one of the most dedicated people I’ve ever met,” said Durbin Keeney, regional director of the Minnesota Assistance Council Duluth. “I’d trust John with my life, on or off the battlefield.”

To Marshall, it’s also a way to serve a veterans community and a country he loves fiercely. He doesn’t feel the same way about the military, by whom he feels betrayed.

“I love this country,” he said. “But I’m not very proud of it right now.”

Almost immediately after being exposed to depleted uranium, Marshall said he started getting strange rashes and illnesses. A few months later, a tumor started growing on the left side of his neck. At first, he said, doctors dismissed it as benign, but he said it grew larger. It was biopsied in November 1991 and discovered to be lymphatic cancer. He was still 20.

Radiation treated the cancer, but other problems developed, including more rashes, stomach ulcers, a failed thyroid gland, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, tachycardia — which causes rapid pulse rates — fibromyalgia and severe arthritis. He now has symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis such as twitching and memory loss. And then there are the mental-health problems — the depression, the PTSD, the panic and anxiety attacks and the anger-control issues he deals with. He will soon be tested for traumatic brain injury.

Veterans Administration documents confirm his diagnoses.

He believes that the Army has been slow to acknowledge his illnesses, if at all. It wasn’t until a suicide attempt in 1997 that the Veterans Administration granted him full disability, but he said he still has to fight to get tests and medications.

“Nothing is ever easy,” he said.

And he said no one has given him an official explanation for why he has become so sick.

Studies ‘inconclusive’

Part of that is because of the controversy surrounding depleted uranium, which is enriched from natural uranium for use in nuclear reactors, according to the military’s office of public health and environmental hazards. Depleted uranium is twice as dense as lead, cheaper to produce and can pierce armor, making it a highly effective weapon.

When it hits a target it ignites and burns, spreading a toxic dust into the environment. It was first used in the Gulf War, where the office of public health said 320 tons was used. The number of soldiers like Marshall who had the highest risk of exposure because they were in or near vehicles struck by depleted uranium was 110, said Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, deputy director of the Force Health Protection & Readiness Department.

As of three years ago, Kilpatrick said, about 125 tons of depleted uranium was used in Iraq during the current war. Data since that point is classified, he said, but he said of the 2,200 soldiers tested for exposure, 10 were found to have positive levels of depleted uranium in their body.

The study Marshall is involved in, conducted at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, requires participants to be tested every two years for uranium in their body. Kilpatrick described the study as “the only data we have on people inhaling the dust.”

He said the results have shown no correlation between depleted uranium exposure and health problems.

“I’ve talked [with the study director] on a regular basis and have not seen anything that would change what I’ve been saying over the years,” he said.

Kilpatrick said everyone carries uranium in their bodies, and that uranium found in everyday soil is more toxic than depleted uranium. He couldn’t comment on Marshall’s situation, but he said there are many injured soldiers from the Gulf War who have unexplained illnesses.

Some believe that the military’s studies are inconclusive, or just wrong.

“Some science is showing that that DU, when inhaled or gets in a wound, can cause long-term health problems because it is a heavy metal and radioactive,” said Paul Sullivan, director of the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense. But he acknowledged that studies are limited.

A 2000 report by the private, nonprofit Institute of Medicine reviewed studies on depleted uranium and its health effects and found, according to Abigail Mitchell, a senior program officer with the institute, that there was inadequate or insufficient data to find a link between the two.

Mitchell said since then new studies have come out and the Institute of Medicine is doing another review, which will be released in June.

Others believe the military hasn’t been willing to fully research the effects of DU.  “It’s a very powerful weapon and they don’t want to give it up,” said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Washington. “They’re having trouble forcing themselves to look at the effects of this very powerful weapon.”

McDermott was successful in pushing legislation that called for a new report to be done on the depleted uranium studies. That report, released last year, said studies have been inconclusive.

“My feeling is perhaps we’re looking at another Agent Orange,” McDermott said, referring to a defoliant used in the Vietnam War later found to cause serious illness in U.S. soldiers. “The military denied and denied and denied until they finally had a study that found out it was toxic. I don’t want to go down that road.”

The truth about the issue, said Sullivan, is probably somewhere in the middle.

“Unfortunately, the debate has fractured into the pro-DU and anti-DU, and that doesn’t serve veterans very well,” he said.

To Marshall, there’s no question about the effects of depleted uranium, and he worries that it might also affect his children. Two of his three children are biological, and they have started showing some strange illnesses and rashes.

He said he plans to become more of an activist and voice on the issue not only in Duluth, but on the state and national levels.

“If I can hold people accountable — if I can hold the government accountable — then that’s what I’ll have to do,” he said. “If this is happening to me, it’s happening to others. That’s my biggest concern.”

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