Over 300,000 American Soldiers, Iraqis,
May Be Suffering "Gulf War Syndrome"

Sherwood Ross

When it comes to making war, the Pentagon may be its own deadliest enemy.  

Of the nearly 700,000 American troops dispatched to fight in the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s forces killed 148 and wounded 467.

But more than 200,000 veterans of that blitzkrieg --about a third of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s army --- filed claims for medical care, compensation, and pensions based on combat-related injuries and illnesses.

Either those vets have organized themselves into the world’s biggest Liar’s Club or something went down in the Gulf War the Pentagon is not anxious to disclose.

As of May, 2002, the Veterans Administration(VA) classified 168,011 Gulf War soldiers  as “disabled” due to service-connected “exposures,” and 8,306 of them had died. That’s roughly three times the number of Americans killed in the current Iraq fighting.

According to Chalmers Johnson’s “The Sorrows of Empire”(Henry Holt), the culprit is depleted uranium(DU). He says the Gulf War casualty rate may be 29%.

The cause of the GIs’ ailments, he says, points to uranium-238, a nuclear reactor waste recycled into U.S. tank shells said to be like “shooting radioactive waste at your enemy.”

But Pentagon officials deny that DU is the cause of Gulf War Syndrome(GWS). They say GWS is more likely to stem from dust and debris scattered when Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons factories and nerve gas bunkers blew up and/or from polluted air from burning oil fields, etc.

Because it is nearly twice as dense as lead, burns as it flies, penetrates armor easily, and vaporizes on impact, three to 10 pounds of DU is inserted in each shell.  What happens when it explodes inside a tank can only be described as hell. Over 300 metric tons of DU were scattered in Iraq I fighting and 1,000 metric tons in Afghanistan, and perhaps 1,700 have been shot off to date in Iraq II.

One study of Gulf War vets showed “their children had a higher possibility of being born with severe deformities, including missing eyes, blood infections, respiratory problems, and fused fingers,” Johnson writes.

Parallel findings are reported about Iraqi children. The Miami Herald’s John Donnelly wrote April 6, 1998, “The number of childhood leukemia patients at hospitals in Basra, Amara and Baghdad’s central cancer treatment center is double or triple what it was before the Gulf War”. Coincidental, yes, but does it prove DU to be the culprit?

Doug Rokke, a retired Army colonel who was on the spot in Iraq as Director of the U.S. Army Depleted Uranium Project at the start of Gulf War I, sees a connection. The officer assigned by the Pentagon to clean DU up and write a DU instruction manual, Rokke, a Ph.D. in health physics, initially thought the effectiveness of the deadly DU-tipped artillery shells would lower troops’ combat risk.

He authored U.S. Army Regulation 700-48 to minimize DU hazards and urged extraordinary precautions with its use. But as he realized DU’s dangers, he opposed its use and was fired. Rokke asserts the Army does not begin to prepare troops for DU hazards, and puts the number of “permanently disabled” Gulf War I vets at 325,000.

In an interview appearing in the July "Giraffe News," published in Langley, Wash., (by the non-profit society to honor gutsy folks who stick their necks out,) Rokke says, “We must take care of the men and women who have been harmed by these weapons, and we must stop using them forever.”

“Members of his (Rokke’s) research team have died slow and painful deaths from ‘mysterious’ illnesses, joining thousands of other veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo, as well as civilians who have worked in weapons plants or lived near testing ranges,” “Giraffe News” noted. Rokke told The Miami Herald’s Donnelly that, of 100 servicemen assigned to help him clean up U.S. equipment hit by DU, 18 have died from DU exposure. Rokke suffers from abnormally high uranium levels, cataracts, rashes, joint pain, and has difficulty breathing.

While conceding “depleted uranium does have some danger, like any heavy metal has,” Pentagon spokesman Major Tom Gilroy told The Herald, the more likely cause of GWS was the release of chemicals from Iraqi bunkers during the fighting. 

If it seems incredible the Pentagon would expose its own troops and Iraqi civilians to DU, recall the post-World War Two era when the Pentagon and CIA exposed millions of Americans “to large clouds of possibly dangerous bacteria and chemical particles,” investigative reporter Bill Blum noted in “Rogue State”(Common Courage).

“They did so without informing the potentially affected populations, without taking any precautions to protect the health and safety of these people, and with no followup monitoring of the effects,” Blum said.

“The Army has acknowledged that between 1949 and 1969, 239 populated areas from coast to coast as well as US territories were blanketed with various organisms during tests designed to measure patterns of dissemination in the air, weather effects, dosages, optimum placement of the source, and other factors,” he noted.

For example, in Sept., 1950, the Army sprayed Bacillus globigii and Serratia marcescens from a ship off San Francisco where it wafted inland. At Stanford University hospital, 11 patients became infected from them and one died, Blum said.

Three years later, the military released “highly toxic” zinc cadmium sulfide in Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Leesburg, Va., and in 1955 the CIA released whooping-cough bacteria near Tampa Bay. In Feb., 1956, a CIA-Army team sprayed New York streets and subways with Bacillus subtilis variant niger, Blum says. Chicago straphangers got similar guinea pig treatment later.

Also, between 1963 and 1969, the Army sprayed Navy warships in the Pacific with a variety of CBW agents, germ agents and even deadly Sarin nerve gas. And Rokke says the Pentagon has tested DU in Puget Sound, Chesapeake Bay and off the Texas coast. (FYI the Geneva Gas Protocol and the Hague Conventions outlaw the use of poisons, period.)

What to make of all this? Well, the Pentagon has an alarming track record of covertly dumping poisons on American civilians and exposing its own troops to radioactive wastes. So are its denials DU doesn’t cause GWS credible?

If past is prologue, probably not. What I do know for certain is if I were to gad about strewing toxins or radioactive wastes on the public streets visitors to my jail cell might be within their rights to ask me, “How could you do that to your fellow Americans? Are you crazy?”

Sherwood Ross writes on politics and military affairs. Contact him at msherwoodr1@yahoo.com.

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Harvard Square Commentary, September 4, 2006