Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The case for depleted uranium testing

The Startribune finally picked up on the proposed legislation in the Minnesota Senate that would allow for the testing of 800 Minnesota National Guard soldiers, checking for exposure to depleted uranium.

I am very pleased that Senator Dille is picking up on this legislation as well and will offer all of my research on the subject.

As a former Bradley Master Gunner, I know quite a bit more about depleted uranium, the M919 round, than most.

I have spoken hundreds of times on the impact of depleted uranium munitions on our soldiers and the neighboring populations alike. It's not a fun presentation at all. The motivation comes from seeing some of my close friends die from Gulf War Syndrome, which some link to the usage of depleted uranium munitions.

Sergeant Major Billy Harte was a powerful leader in the Army. When I recall Billy before he was stricken with cancer, he resembled a linebacker. Standing well over 6 feet tall and over 23o pounds, SGM Harte could still out perform most of our soldiers in our physical fitness tests, regardless of the age group.

In 1998 SGM Harte was diagnosed with lung and liver cancers. He fought for quite some time and at one point we all thought he had this thing beat. In mid 1999, SGM Harte had a more significant relapse and over a 6 month period of time, SSG Meeks, SSG Freeman, myself and others who served under him, watched Billy whittle away from his stout 230 pounds, to under 150 pounds when he died in late 1999.

The doctors at Madigan Army Hospital told us that Billy "had cancers we have not really seen since Hiroshima and Nagasaki days". I recall looking at Meeks and Freeman and wondered what the hell was going on.

Then we recall the stories SGM Harte would tell us as we shared a GP small tent out in Yakima Washington. Billy believed his cancers were from the "rounds we used in the Gulf". Billy led a Mechanized Infantry platoon during the 1990-91 Gulf War, the first major US conflict we used DU munitions in.

Almost a decade later, Billy blamed his use of these rounds on his cancer, and for me, it became a motivation to study DU munitions.

What is depleted uranium and why would we use it?

Essentially, depleted uranium is the by product from the uranium enrichment projects, in both nuclear reactors and with nuclear weapons. They only use less than 1% of an uranium atom, with more than 99% being the remnants, the depleted side of the house per se.

With more than 750 million tons of this stuff laying around now, we (our government and the defense contractors) needed to do something with it.

We use it because it penetrates pretty much anything. 1st Cav troops in the 1st Gulf War reported engagements with modern Soviet era tanks (T72) in which this ammunition penetrated and destroyed the vehicle.

It's twice as dense as lead and nearly 5 times as dense as steel. So, when it hits the "target" it has enough kinetic energy behind it to penetrate the "target".

If that we all it did, we would not have any controversy though.

DU munitions are pyrphoric in nature, that is, they burn intensely upon impact. Dr. Doug Rokke describes it as a hot knife cutting through butter. Except that, the fine particles that are created during the burn are radioactive.

Depleted Uranium has a half life of 4.5 billion years, which means it is very mildly radioactive. However, because DU is often contaminated in the reactor process with plutonium 238, half life 88 years, plutonium 239, half life 24,110 years, and Americium 241, half life 432.2 years, this mildly radioactive waste becomes problematic.

When it is a fine of a particle as it is, it becomes easily inhaled and the particles can settle in the lungs, liver and reproductive organs, causing genetic defects and cancers.

In a study of 251 Mississippi Gulf War Veterans, 67 percent of their children were born without eyes, ears, or a brain, had fused fingers, blood infections, respiratory problems or thyroid and other organ malnormalities.

For those that had to live through American forces use of DU munitions during the first Gulf War, the statistics are shocking to say the least.

A 1998 symposium in Bagdhad found that those living in Southern Iraq, near the Basra area were:

10 fold increase in uterine cancers

16 fold increase in ovarian cancer

5 fold increase in cancers overall

higher incidences of still births and congenital deformities.

We have known for quite some time what the impact of using something like this would be. I have the hard copy of a de-classified Manhattan project document from 1943 that describes the possible use of the by-product from an atomic device.

The memo describes how what is now known as depleted uranium, could be used as a terrain contaminant or a gas warfare instrument.

General Leslie Groves knew this in 1943. Almost 65 years later a trail of denial still exists.

It exists for many reasons.

1. Groups like Alliant Tech Systems profit heavily off the use of this weapon. In fact, since the first Gulf War, we have seen a proliferation of these weapons. In the first Gulf War, the smallest caliber used was a 25 mm from the Bradley Fighting Vehicles. We now use it in 7.62mm machine guns.

When you can purchase this stock from the Department of Energy at pennies on the ton and sell it back to the Department of Defense at profit margins literally thousands of times what was paid for it, why would the Defense Industry want to let it's cash cow die?

2. Iraq was the first wide spread use area of DU munitions. Used extensively in the southern portions of Iraq, US led investigators searched areas of northern and central Iraq for exposure, not finding significant levels. UN research in the Balkans has projected 10,000 more cancers in the region because of the use of these weapons.

3. Denial, denial, denial. Much like agent orange. Don't look, don't find, don't pay. With a VA that is already overburdened and under funded, what would an additional 436,000 GWI Vets who may have been exposed to this stuff do to the system. Using the government's logic, let a couple hundred thousand Vets die, then study the impact. You end up paying a lot less...

It only took the Government 22 years to acknowledge the impact of agent orange...

This legislation would have made its way through the GOP controlled House last year of Kathy Tinglestad and Dan Severson would not have stopped it. I am very pleased to see this legislation actually getting some exposure now!

The Strib story indicates that Governor Pawlenty may not sign this legislation.

We'll see what happens...when more and more Veterans get pissed off about stuff like this, the movement will be powerful.

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