By the end of June, more than 600 Vermont National Guard members will be deployed in and around heavy combat areas in Iraq, where battlefield exposure to depleted uranium – a highly toxic and radioactive battlefield poison widely used by the United States in combat zones – has now become routine, military watchdogs say.
During the recent legislative session, Vermont lawmakers and state leaders turned aside a modest proposal to assess the impact of Vermont National Guard members deployed in dangerous and highly stressful war zones. However, other legislatures have been aggressively pursuing measures aimed at safeguarding their troops.
Louisiana last week became the first state to require returning troops to be tested for exposure to depleted uranium. And, like both the Louisiana House and Senate, the Connecticut House unanimously passed similar legislation earlier this month. That bill, which has broad bipartisan co-sponsorship, is now before the state’s Senate. Lawmakers from at least seven other states interested in drafting similar legislation have contacted Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-New Haven, the Connecticut author of the bill.
Ninety Vermonters are currently serving in combat zones, including 25 assigned to a military police company based in the Sunni stronghold of Tikrit, the hometown of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein; and 65 are attached to a Mississippi National Guard unit in Najaf, according to Lt. Veronica Saffo, a National Guard spokeswoman in Colchester.
Twenty Vermont soldiers are in Iraq working as support staff; 600 are based in Kuwait, where they rotate in and out of combat; and 65 are guarding civilian security contractors in Saudi Arabia.
On Thursday, another 400 Vermont troops are scheduled to leave for Iraq as part of a brigade combat team. Their base is not identified ahead of time for security reasons, Saffo said. But “they will be in the combat areas, definitely in the villages and working with the Iraqi police as part of a significantly sized brigade combat team,” she confirmed.
The Department of Defense said depleted uranium use in Iraq is significantly lower than the 320 tons fired during the first Gulf War. Outside watchdogs say up to 150 tons of DU have been fired during the current Iraq conflict.
No DU weapons systems have been used in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon, where six Vermonters are stationed and another 50 are headed later this month.
“Previous to the Gulf War, no special training was mandated concerning DU,” according to Barbara Goodno with the Defense Department’s deployment health office. “Soon after the Gulf War, awareness training was instituted for service members who may be exposed to DU weapons, specialized teams … who may have higher than average exposure receive increased training.”
But according to a 2000 study by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, a survey two years earlier by the Army’s Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses of more than 1,600 personnel, found that only 65 percent received required DU training. “We also found a great deal of disparity among units in that three units had not conducted the required DU training at all,” the GAO reported.
None of the branches of the military had made sufficient progress in implementing DU training, the study found, concluding that “service members were only marginally better prepared to contend with DU hazards than they had been during the Gulf War.”
Saffo said all Vermont troops participate in annual DU training and get more intensified training prior to their deployment. “There is a list of specific core training requirements mandatory for all units in the Army. Every year the commanders of every unit in the state have to make sure the soldiers get the specialized training provided by the Army.”
But Joyce Riley, a Gulf War National Guard veteran and executive director of the American Gulf War Veterans Association in Versaille, MO, calls the Pentagon’s claim of better training “a lie.”
“They have used hundreds of tons of DU over there,” said Riley, who hosts a daily radio talk show. “We are overwhelmed with phone calls from people who have just returned from Iraq who are not getting treatment.”
Just 180 Vermont National Guard members have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan thus far. Although they are given physical and mental health screening, they are not routinely tested for DU exposure, said Anselm Beach, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital in White River Junction.
Returning troops are reporting primarily “readjustment issues,” noted Beach. “Some muscular skeletal problems because you have soldiers wearing 60 pounds of gear, some issues with hearing from explosions … the regular things with combat, but nothing out of the ordinary.”
The hospital would test for DU exposure only if symptoms prompt a doctor to recommend it, Beach said.
However, a group of congressional Democrats would like to see DU testing standardized. On May 17, Washington Rep. Jim McDermott, a Vietnam veteran, and 21 other Democrats introduced a bill in Congress that would require the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to report to Congress on the health effects of DU exposure, not only on veterans but also on their children born after exposure to DU munitions.
“There are countless stories of mysterious illnesses, higher rates of serious illnesses and even birth defects,” McDermott said on the floor of the House. “We do not know what role, if any, DU plays in the medical tragedies in Iraq, but we must find out.”
In 1997, federal medical researchers at the Naval Health Research Center and the CDC determined that babies born to Gulf War veterans were more likely to suffer from certain birth defects including malformations of the eyes, jaw, and spine.
Depleted uranium, a highly toxic and radioactive byproduct of the uranium enrichment process, is widely used in U.S. weapons systems because of its ability to penetrate steel and its low cost. It is also used to line tanks, and advocates say its strength and efficiency as a weapon is a benefit for U.S. troops.
But the term “depleted” is a misnomer, since DU contains about 60 percent of the radioactivity found in natural uranium, according to Tod Ensign, a veteran and attorney with the veterans advocacy group Citizen Soldier in New York.
“When a DU shell strikes its target, up to 70 percent of the depleted uranium vaporizes into fine dust, which then settles out in the surrounding soil and water,” he wrote. “Over half of the aerosolized particles are smaller than 5 microns and anything smaller than 10 microns can be inhaled. Once lodged in the lungs, these particles can emit a steady dose of alpha radiation.”
Goodno said all service members in the field carry protective masks for use against chemical or biological attack, which could also be used “in extreme cases” to prevent DU inhalation. “Protective equipment is only required as a precaution for those who have repeated, prolonged exposure” to DU, she noted.
Some veterans of the first Gulf War say DU exposure has led to a battery of debilitating symptoms including headaches, fatigue, joint pain, sleep disturbance, and frequent urination, which they call Gulf War syndrome.
Ensign reports that months before the first Gulf War, the Army’s Armament, Munitions, and Chemical Command published the following warning: “Following combat, the condition of the battlefield and the long term health risks to natives [sic] and combat veterans may become issues in the acceptability of the continued use of DU for military applications.” The report added that DU has been “linked to cancer when exposures are internal.”
Iraqi doctors and researchers have reported dramatic increases in cancer and childhood leukemia since the early 1990s.
Of the nearly 700,000 troops who fought in the first Gulf War, more than 187,000 had been granted some level of disability status for injury or illness related to their service, according to VA statistics for February 2005. More than 10,000 of the returning Gulf War veterans have died.
The Defense Department continues to insist that there is no scientific evidence that links exposure to depleted uranium to any of the symptoms, and that no single diagnosis explains the symptoms.
Of the 104 soldiers known to have been hit by “friendly fire” DU munitions during the 1991 war, according to Goodno, 70 participated in a VA follow-up program. All of them had inhalation exposure, and about one third had embedded DU shrapnel. “Those veterans with retained DU shrapnel continue to excrete elevated levels of urinary uranium,” she noted. “To date, none of these individuals have developed kidney abnormalities, leukemia, bone or lung cancer, or any other uranium-related health problems.”
But McDermott asks, “If DU is so safe, why do American soldiers need to wear protective clothing in the first place?”
He urged Congress, “Let the Pentagon prove that it is safe.”