Did Depleted Uranium Shells Harm 400,000 American Troops?
"Nobody Ever Told Us To Stay Away"
WASHINGTON (AP) -- As many as 400,000 Persian Gulf War troops may have been exposed to hazardous particles of uranium from shells fired by American tanks and aircraft, according to a study released on Monday by a coalition of veterans groups.
The National Gulf War Resource Center also alleged that the Defense Department was aware of the potential of health problems from battlefield exposure to depleted uranium before the 1991 war but failed to alert the troops.
"The U.S. Department of Defense has engaged in a deliberate attempt to avoid responsibility for consciously allowing the widespread exposure of hundreds of thousands of U.S. and coalition servicemen and women," the group contended.
Depleted uranium: Usually harmless, but can be toxic
Depleted uranium is a metal residue left when natural uranium is refined. It is used in artillery shells and bombs designed to penetrate the armor of tanks. It also is used as a protective shell on armored vehicles.
When sealed in armor or in a bomb or artillery shell, depleted uranium exposure is relatively harmless. But when a depleted uranium shell hits its target, some of the metal burns and oxidizes into small particles. This creates an airborne dust that, if inhaled or ingested, can be toxic in humans.
Until just recently, the Pentagon office investigating links between the mysterious ailments of Gulf War veterans, known collectively as Gulf War Illnesses, and troop exposures to a variety of toxins and chemical agents had insisted that only 27 soldiers had possibly been exposed to depleted uranium.
It also contended that the troops faced no health risk from their exposures.
'These hazards well-documented' by Army
But on January 8, in a report marking the first year of its investigation, the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses made a sweeping -- but little noted -- admission that thousands of troops may have been exposed.
It acknowledged "serious deficiencies in what our troops understood" about the health dangers of depleted uranium.
"These hazards were well-documented" by the Army, it said. "Unfortunately, this information was generally known only by technical specialists," and combat troops and those who scoured the battlefields in Iraq and Kuwait after the war were not aware of dangers.
"The failure to properly disseminate such information to troops at all levels may have resulted in thousands of unnecessary exposures," the Pentagon report said.
The veterans coalition went further, alleging that the Pentagon -- most particularly the Army -- purposely kept soldiers in the dark and failed after the war to conduct immediate testing of those possibly exposed.
"They were aware they had a problem on their hands, and they were looking to minimize the (public relations) fallout from it," Dan Fahey, the principal author of the study, said in a telephone interview.
Fahey is with the Swords to Plowshares Veterans Rights Organization, based in San Francisco.
Pentagon unaware of study but welcomes help
A Pentagon spokesman on Gulf War Illness issues, Air Force Capt. Tom Gilroy, said he was unaware of the report released on Monday. "We welcome anything that can help," he said.
The report's authors said they could not make a firm estimate of the number of U.S. and allied soldiers who were exposed to the depleted uranium particles because too little is known about the circumstances of exposure incidents.
They settled on a rough estimate of 400,000 troops exposed based on surveys that indicated about three-fourths of the 541,000 U.S. servicemen and women present during the war reported having come in contact with destroyed Iraqi equipment either during the fighting or afterward.
'Nobody ever told us to stay away'
The vast majority of those who had physical contact with destroyed Iraqi vehicles were on postwar missions to clear the battlefield or to destroy what remained of Iraqi equipment to prevent the Iraqis from collecting it later, Fahey said.
If those U.S. troops had simply been instructed to take proper precautions, the exposure problem would have been minor, he said.
Fahey's study quoted Victor Suell, who was a radio operator with the Marines as they swept into Kuwait in February 1991.
"We came across a lot of destroyed vehicles and dead bodies as we moved up through Kuwait," Suell is quoted as saying. "Nobody ever told us to stay away from the vehicles that might have been contaminated with depleted uranium."
Suell returned to Kuwait with the Marines in 1992 and his unit again encountered destroyed Iraqi vehicles. "Lots of people were climbing on those vehicles," he said. Suell now has kidney problems and other ailments he thinks may be related to his Gulf service.

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