DoD And DU?
by Steven Rosenfeld
June 16, 2003
Every recent major war involving the U.S. military has had unintended health impacts for battlefield veterans. In Vietnam, exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange caused lingering illnesses. In 1991's Persian Gulf War, battlefield exposures led to the maladies known as Gulf War Syndrome, leaving one-third of eligible veterans filing federal disability claims.
While no one knows what medical issues lie ahead for Iraq War soldiers, veterans groups are concerned about the exposure to battlefield byproducts from depleted uranium (DU) munitions, which were used extensively in bullets and shells fired by U.S. tanks and jets. DU is by-product of nuclear fuel processing and is harder and deadlier than lead bullets.
The Pentagon says DU is safe, but Gulf War veteran advocates are skeptical, saying the military should scientifically study the most-exposed soldiers to see if they develop any illnesses tied to low-level radiation exposure -- from either inhaling or ingesting airborne DU particles from destroyed Iraqi targets or from U.S. friendly-fire accidents, and the related emergency responses to those accidents and subsequent clean-ups.
Civilian medical experts -- who are neither on the Department of Defense (DoD) or vets' side in this fray -- agree. An April 2 Journal of the American Medical Association article on DU risks found the science on its health threats was inconclusive and called for more scientific study. But it's not clear that the Pentagon is willing to go this far.
On May 30, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs William Winkenwerder issued a memo, entitled, "Policy for the Operation Iraqi Freedom Depleted Uranium Medical Management," (HA Policy 03-012), for the most highly-exposed troops.
The memo designates three exposure levels and requires a "bio-assay" test for soldiers "who were on, in or near combat vehicles at the time they were struck" or "who entered immediately after to attempt rescue," and for "personnel who routinely entered DU-damaged vehicles… or who fought fires involving DU munitions."
The memo also says exposed soldiers who leave the military should seek care through the existing Veterans Administration DU programs. Meanwhile, another DoD memo tells military field commanders to "encourage" soldiers "to see their health-care provider" if medical problems arise. And a post-deployment medical questionnaire includes DU exposure as a reason for military medical personnel to refer patients for more care.
But the May 30 policy does not commit the DoD to scientifically tracking and studying DU-related health impacts, according to National Gulf War Veterans Resource Center Executive Director Steven Robinson. Moreover, he said the May 30 policy "was not new. This was something that's already in place."
"If you don't do the science, then it's pure speculation and places the burden on the vet to prove something he's not capable of proving -- he just knows he's sick," Robinson said, adding there was a difference between the DoD referring exposed soldiers for medical care and tracking the larger pattern of battlefield exposures and health consequences.
But the Pentagon's spokesman for DU health issues said the DoD was required to track the potential health impacts on troops in Iraq.
"You have the policy and you see what the military is required to do," said Austin Camacho of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. "Our commitment to identify those people who are exposed to DU and monitor their health is certainly a commitment to track what seems to be a cause and effect relationship."
Camacho said tracking the health effects of DU battlefield exposures was an ongoing and long-term commitment. He had no details, however, on how many troops from the Iraq war were in the "highly-exposed" category requiring mandatory bio-assay testing.
"These folks are being followed," Camacho said. "Their health is being followed, to see that they get the appropriate care."
While it remains to be seen how the DU policy unfolds, Gulf War vets are skeptical and point to their experience since the 1991 war as justification. They emphasize that unless there is science linking battlefield causes and health effects, there will be little likelihood of medical care for still-enlisted soldiers or veterans.
To underscore how significant this point is, Robinson notes that on June 16, the Veterans Administration Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illnesses will hear four long-awaited reports from scientists that he said will "reveal previously unknown information about what made veterans ill" during the 1991 Gulf war.
"It's not that it's taken 12 years to get us to this point," he said. "The first 10 years after the Gulf War, scientists were told by the DoD that stress caused all this and DoD didn't fund any studies. Shouldn't the mistakes of the first Gulf War give us caution to conduct surveys if we think there might be a problem?"
Steven Rosenfeld is a commentary editor and audio producer for TomPaine.com, where this article first appeared (www.tompaine.com)