For the generals who run the Pentagon, depleted uranium is a true weapon of mass destruction. Not because it’s a nuclear, biological or chemical warhead demanding international treaties, but because it kills enemy soldiers and tanks better than anything the world has ever seen.
For that reason, U.S. armed forces of every branch put depleted uranium (DU) into their ordinance. U.S. Army and Marine Corps battle tanks fire DU rounds. The U.S. Air Force’s A-10 attack aircraft fires DU bullets. The U.S. Navy uses DU rounds in its Phalanx guns.
Stronger than steel and more lethal than tungsten, which has a tendency to shatter on impact, DU bullets and rounds actually sharpen as they penetrate tank armor. Depleted uranium also ignites at 340 degrees Fahrenheit, and will incinerate whatever it penetrates.
DU rounds travel farther and hit harder—much harder than anything else in the world’s arsenals. Throughout Iraq and the Balkans, U.S. tanks and aircraft firing DU rounds over the last 15 years have destroyed thousands of enemy tanks with virtually no corresponding losses.
“What we want to be able to do is strike the target from farther away than we can be hit back, and we want the target to be destroyed when we shoot at it,” U.S. Army Colonel James Naughton told reporters during a March 14, 2003 briefing on DU. “[I]n World War II we faced a problem of not having the overreach we have today. We don’t ever want to go back to that. And we don’t want to fight even. Nobody goes into a war and wants to be even with the enemy. We want to be ahead, and DU gives us that advantage. We can hit, and they can’t hit us.”
Yes, depleted uranium is a true wonder weapon. It would be the perfect weapon, in fact, if it weren’t for the growing concern that it’s killing our own soldiers. No one really knows for sure, and there are stacks of medical studies that seem to confirm and deny any DU-related dangers, but it’s a fact that more and more researchers are saying depleted uranium exposure may cause a host of kidney ailments and cancers.
The federal government may not be doing anything to address DU concerns, but in Hawai’i, things are different. In the state Legislature, there’s an effort to get DU exposure testing to all returning vets. And no less a health authority than Dr. Lorrin Pang, Maui District Health Officer for the State of Hawai’i’s Department of Health has offered his personal view that DU poses a very real threat to today’s troops.
“DU is the Agent Orange of this war,” said Bill Stroud, president of Vietnam Veterans of Maui, referring to the notorious herbicide used by the U.S. Government during the Vietnam War on huge tracts of jungle that was later shown to cause cancer in soldiers exposed to the sprayings. “It’s a negligently criminal act by our government. We either get some action or we sentence our guys to a slow and painful death.”
Depleted uranium—DU, for short—is about 40 percent less radioactive than naturally occurring uranium, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. It emits alpha particles of radiation—they can’t get past walls, clothes or even skin—but if you eat or inhale DU, you’re in trouble.
You get DU when you make fuel rods for nuclear reactors. According to DU researcher Karen Chun, the U.S. Government has about a million tons of the junk just lying around. So much, in fact, that they literally give it away to munitions makers, who prize it for its exceptional hardness. “They even considered using it for paving material,” Chun told a few dozen people at a Feb. 24 discussion on DU at Maui Community College sponsored by Maui Peace Action.
There’s also increasing evidence that DU may explain a shocking bit of math dating back to the first Gulf War. In 1991, the U.S. sent 696,778 soldiers, sailors and airmen to the Persian Gulf to fight in Operation Desert Storm, which lasted barely a month. Of those, 148 were killed in action, 467 were wounded and another 145 died in accidents. That’s 760 total casualties.
But since then, the Veterans Administration has reported that more than 183,000 of those who served have filed service-related disability claims for a variety of debilitating and potentially deadly ailments that have come to be known as Gulf War Syndrome. That’s 26 percent of the entire force that deployed. To illustrate how immense that number is, just nine percent of returning World War II vets, five percent of Korea vets and another nine percent of Vietnam vets ever filed for medical disability.
Fifteen years after the conclusion of Gulf War I, and no military or medical official can yet say why there are so many medical problems with Desert Storm vets. Theories include exposure to chemical and nerve agents released accidentally during clean-up detonations after the war, weird chemical poisoning caused by the massive oil well fires ignited by retreating Iraqi forces and experimental anti-nerve vaccines or ultra-powerful bug sprays given to troops just before the war.
For the Pentagon, the first two theories are especially popular—notably because they carry no liability for the federal government. War is dirty, and modern war brings with exposure to new and deadly toxics hitherto unseen in war. But one theory that isn’t at all popular in the E-Ring or anywhere else in the chain of command is depleted uranium.
U.S. military officials have spent years denying that DU is dangerous to people who come in contact with it. They say research into uranium miners shows no long-term health effects. They even produced their own 2004 study—called “Capstone”—that seems to show that even soldiers carrying DU shrapnel in their bodies show no ill effects.
And they might be correct. The problem is, there are still many noted civilian scientists who say there are too many gaps and limitations in current DU research to say anything certain.
“We have no idea,” Carolyn Fulco, an Institute of Medicine DU researcher told the Daily Press of Hampton Roads, Virginia, which published an exhaustive investigation into DU on Dec. 12, 2004. Another DU researcher, Beate Ritz of the University of California, Los Angeles, told the paper: “Our human research, as valuable as it is, has a lot of severe limitations.”
Lorrin Pang, the District Health Office for Maui County, says his personal view is that DU poses a health threat. He’s also a retired member of the U.S. Army Medical Corps.
During a Feb. 24, 2006 panel discussion on DU at Maui Community College, Pang referred to a National Academy of Sciences study on uranium miners that showed that while the junk didn’t seem to cause lung cancer or kidney disease, there was some indication that DU could cause a whole host of other cancers, including bone cancer and lymphatic cancer.
Indeed, even the Pentagon, which chose the name “Capstone” for its DU study as a way to subtly hint that there was no need to say anything else on the matter, says it’s still doing research. But that research doesn’t extend to getting returning Iraq and Afghanistan vets tested for DU contamination.
For local anti-DU activists, House Bill 2741 offered some hope in this area. “The purpose of this Act is to safeguard the health of Hawai’i’s national guard veterans,” the bill language stated. Sponsored by seven Democrats—including Mele Carroll (D, 13th District) from Maui—and introduced in late January of this year, the bill sought to help veterans get federal health screenings for DU exposure and establish a task force to “study the health effects on these veterans of exposures to hazardous materials, including depleted uranium, during their service.”
The bill almost immediately stalled in the House Public Safety and Military Affairs Committee. According to a legislative aide familiar with the bill, HB 2741 has been modified into a “resolution”—a toothless statement that lacks any force of law and merely advocates that returning vets should get DU-exposure testing. The change came about, the aide said, after committee members consulted with the state Adjutant General’s office. The aide said that according to the Adjutant General—Major General Robert G. F. Lee, the overall commander of all state Guard forces—such testing “wasn’t necessary.”
A spokesman for the Adjutant General’s office confirmed that.
“We feel as though it’s not necessary,” said Major Charles Anthony. “All returning soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors coming back from combat zones are given medical screenings. Everyone from the Army Guard coming back from Iraq or Kuwait is given extensive health screenings. What’s proposed is somewhat redundant.”
In fact, the Adjutant General’s office may be right—but not necessarily for the reason Major Anthony gave. Screening returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan using the current testing regimen may tell us nothing about their possible exposure to DU.
At the February DU forum at MCC, Lorrin Pang said that his reading of the available DU literature shows that it may be next to impossible to find out how DU is actually poisoning the human body. That’s because it isn’t actually the uranium that’s causing problems, but rather oxides and other chemical compounds that are created when DU rounds strike the ground, armor, etc.
It’s these compounds—and not simply the depleted uranium—that may be causing serious health problems when inhaled. But finding these compounds could be all but impossible.
“I’m not sure science has a test to find byproducts of DU,” Pang told the MCC crowd. “The urine test for uranium is easy, but you have to have a piece of shrapnel in you… It’s not just DU—it’s DU after an explosion. It’s very easy for the military to say DU is gone. Of course it’s gone—it’s converted to another chemical.”
Pang said DU impact strikes could create four to five different oxides. He added that these “may be chemically very different from DU” and very “hard to detect.”
At this point during the MCC panel discussion, Bill Stroud of the Maui Vietnam Vets group asked what was the point of testing returning soldiers if the tests probably weren’t going to show anything.
“There are two ways to monitor,” Pang said. “Check now [and] check in a few years. It’s never too late to test. You can always monitor for symptoms… A cautious person will say, ‘I will watch these soldiers.’ When you don’t know, you monitor and you watch.”
What’s really scary is that Hawai’i National Guardsmen and U.S. forces stationed in the islands don’t have to go to Iraq to get DU exposure. Early this year the anti-war group DMZ Hawaii/Aloha ‘Aina obtained through the Freedom of Information Act a Sept. 19, 2005 email from a military official outlining a survey of the Schofield Barracks.
“We have found much that we did not expect, including recent find of depleted uranium,” Samuel P. McManus of the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center in Alabama told U.S. Army official Ronald Borne. “We are pulling tons of frag and scrap out of the craters in the western area to the point where it has basically turned into a manual sifting operation. Had this not been a CWM [Chemical Warfare Materiel] site, we would have moved mechanical sifters in about 5 weeks ago but the danger is just too high.”
In a Jan. 6, 2006 Honolulu Advertiser story on the memo, U.S. Army officials confirmed that clean-up contractors at Schofield Barracks had located 15 tail assemblies from D-38 uranium alloy rounds that dated to the 1960’s. The army officials said the rounds posed no danger.
Yeah, no danger, except to Pentagon public relations. Much the way the military officials spent years vigorously denying that Agent Orange caused the cancers that were killing Vietnam vets, they denied that U.S. forces ever used DU rounds during training exercises at Schofield or any other base in Hawai’i.
It’s possible military officials are correct in their assertion that depleted uranium doesn’t cause Gulf War Syndrome or any other medical problems. But given their track record, they can hardly blame people for not trusting them. MTW