Weapons of Self-Destruction
By David Rose
Is Gulf War syndrome - possibly caused by Pentagon ammunition - taking its
toll on G.I.'s in Iraq?
When he started to get sick, Staff Sergeant Raymond Ramos's first instinct
was to fight. "I had joint pains, muscle aches, chronic fatigue, but I tried
to exercise it out," he says. "I was going for runs, working out. But I
never got any better. The headaches were getting more frequent and sometimes
lasted all day. I was losing a lot of weight. My overall physical demeanor
A 20-year veteran of the New York National Guard, Ramos had been mobilized
for active duty in Iraq in the spring of 2003. His unit, the 442nd Military
Police company, arrived there on Easter, 10 days before President Bush's
mission accomplished appearance on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. A tall,
soft-spoken 40-year-old with four children, the youngest still an infant,
Ramos was proud of his physique. In civilian life, he was a New York City
cop. "I worked on a street narcotics team. It was very busy, with lots of
overtime-very demanding." Now, rising unsteadily from his armchair in his
thickly carpeted living room in Queens, New York, Ramos grimaces. "The shape
I came back in, I cannot perform at that level. I've lost 40 pounds. I'm
At first, as his unit patrolled the cities of Najaf and al-Diwaniyya, Ramos
stayed healthy. But in June 2003, as temperatures climbed above 110 degrees,
his unit was moved to a makeshift base in an abandoned railroad depot in
Samawah, where some fierce tank battles had taken place. "When we first got
there, I was a heat casualty, feeling very weak," Ramos says. He expected to
recover quickly. Instead, he went rapidly downhill.
By the middle of August, when the 442nd was transferred to Babylon, Ramos
says, the right side of his face and both of his hands were numb, and he had
lost most of the strength in his grip. His fatigue was worse and his
headaches had become migraines, frequently so severe "that I just couldn't
function." His urine often contained blood, and even when it didn't he would
feel a painful burning sensation, which "wouldn't subside when I finished."
His upper body was covered by a rash that would open and weep when he
scratched it. As he tells me this, he lifts his shirt to reveal a mass of
pale, circular scars. He was also having respiratory difficulties. Later, he
would develop sleep apnea, a dangerous condition in which he would stop
breathing during sleep.
Eventually, Ramos was medevaced to a military hospital in Landstuhl,
Germany. Doctors there were baffled and sent him on to the Walter Reed Army
Medical Center, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. There, Ramos says, one
neurologist suggested that his condition could have been caused by some
long-forgotten head injury or might just be "signs of aging." At the end of
September 2003, the staff at Walter Reed ordered him to report to Fort Dix,
New Jersey, where, he says, a captain went through his record and told him,
"I was clear to go back to Iraq. I got the impression they thought I was
faking it." He was ordered to participate in a long-distance run. Halfway
through, he collapsed. Finally, on July 31, 2004, after months of further
examinations, Ramos was discharged with a medical disability and sent home.
Symptoms such as Ramos's had been seen before. In veterans of Operation
Desert Storm, they came to be called Gulf War syndrome; among those posted
to Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, Balkans syndrome. He was not the only
member of the 442nd to suffer them. Others had similar urinary problems,
joint pains, fatigue, headaches, rashes, and sleep apnea. Today, some
scientists believe that all these problems, together with others found in
war-zone civilians, can be traced to the widespread use of a uniquely deadly
form of ammunition.
In the ongoing Iraq conflict, just as in the Gulf War of 1991 and in the
Balkans, American and British forces have fired tens of thousands of shells
and cannon rounds made of a toxic and radioactive material called depleted
uranium, or D.U. Because D.U. is dense-approximately 1.7 times as dense as
lead-and ignites upon impact, at a temperature of about 5,400 degrees, it
can penetrate armor more effectively than any other material.
It's also remarkably cheap. The arms industry gets its D.U. for free from
nuclear-fuel processors, which generate large quantities of it as a
by-product of enriching uranium for reactor fuel. Such processors would
otherwise have to dispose of it in protected, regulated sites. D.U. is
"depleted" only in the sense that most of its fissile U-235 isotope has been
removed. What's left-mainly U-238-is still radioactive.
Three of the main weapons systems still being used in Iraq-the M-1 Abrams
tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and the A-10 Warthog attack jet-use D.U.
ammunition. A 120-mm. tank round contains about nine pounds of solid D.U.
When a D.U. "penetrator" strikes its target, up to 70 percent of the shell's
mass is flung into the air in a shower of uranium-oxide fragments and dust,
some in the form of aerosolized particles less than a millionth of a meter
in diameter. When inhaled, such particles lodge in the lungs and bathe the
surrounding tissue with alpha radiation, known to be highly dangerous
internally, and smaller amounts of beta and gamma radiation.
Even before Desert Storm, the Pentagon knew that D.U. was potentially
hazardous. Before last year's Iraq invasion, it issued strict regulations
designed to protect civilians, troops, and the environment after the use of
D.U. But the Pentagon insists that there is little chance that these
veterans' illnesses are caused by D.U.
The U.S. suffered only 167 fatal combat casualties in the first Gulf War.
Since then, veterans have claimed pensions and health-care benefits at a
record rate. The Veterans Administration reported this year that it was
paying service-related disability pensions to 181,996 Gulf War
veterans-almost a third of the total still living. Of these, 3,248 were
being compensated for "undiagnosed illnesses." The Pentagon's spokesman, Dr.
Michael Kilpatrick, deputy director of its Deployment Health section, says
that Gulf War veterans are no less healthy than soldiers who were stationed
Those returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom are also beginning to report
illnesses in significant numbers. In July 2004, the V.A. disclosed that
27,571 of them-16.4 percent of the total-had sought health care. Of that
group, 8,134 suffered muscular and skeletal ailments; 3,505 had respiratory
problems; and 5,674 had "symptoms, signs and ill-defined conditions." An
additional 153 had developed cancers. The V.A. claims that such figures are
"typical of young, active, healthcare-seeking populations," but does not
offer figures for comparison.
There is also evidence of a large rise in birth defects and unprecedented
cancer rates among civilians following the first Gulf War in the Basra
region of southern Iraq, where the heaviest fighting took place. Dr.
Kilpatrick says, "I think it's very important to try to understand what are
the causes of that high rate of cancer and birth defects. There has to be a
good look at that, but if you go to the M. D. Anderson hospital, in Houston,
Texas, you're going to find a very high rate of cancer. That's because
people from all over the country with cancer go there, because it's one of
the premier care centers. Basra was the only major hospital in southern
Iraq. Are the people there with these different problems people who lived
their entire lives in Basra, or are they people who've come to Basra for
care?" It is possible, he says, that some other environmental factor is
responsible for the illnesses, such as Saddam's chemical weapons or poor
nutrition. "I don't think anything should be taken off the table."
In October 2004, an early draft of a study by the Research Advisory
Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, a scientific panel run by the
V.A., was leaked to The New York Times. According to the Times, the panel
had concluded that there was a "probable link" between veterans' illnesses
and exposure to neurotoxins, including a drug given to troops in 1991 to
protect them from nerve gas, and nerve gas itself, which was released when
U.S.-led forces destroyed an Iraqi arms depot. Asked why there was no
mention of D.U. in the report, Dr. Lea Steele, the panel's scientific
director, says that her group plans to address it in a later report: "We've
only just begun work on this topic. We are certainly not ruling it out."
D.U.'s critics, meanwhile, say it's entirely possible that both neurotoxins
and D.U. are responsible for the widespread sickness among veterans.
Members of the 442nd have vivid memories of being exposed to D.U. Sergeant
Hector Vega, a youthful-looking 48-year-old who in civilian life works in a
building opposite Manhattan's Guggenheim Museum, says he now struggles with
chest pains, heart palpitations, headaches, urinary problems, body tremors,
and breathlessness-none of which he'd ever experienced before going to Iraq.
He recalls the unit's base there: "There were burnt-out Iraqi tanks on
flatbed trucks 100 yards from where we slept. It looked like our barracks
had also been hit, with black soot on the walls. It was open to the
elements, and dust was coming in all the time. When the wind blew, we were
eating it, breathing it. It was everywhere." (The Department of Defense, or
D.O.D., says that a team of specialists is conducting an occupational and
environmental health survey in the area.)
Dr. Asaf Durakovic, 64, is a retired U.S. Army colonel and the former head
of nuclear medicine at a veterans' hospital in Wilmington, Delaware. Dr.
Durakovic reports finding D.U. in the urine of 18 out of 30 Desert Storm
veterans, sometimes up to a decade after they were exposed, and in his view
D.U. fragments are both a significant cause of Gulf War syndrome and a
hazard to civilians for an indefinite period of time. He says that when he
began to voice these fears inside the military he was first warned, then
fired: he now operates from Toronto, Canada, at the independent Uranium
Medical Research Centre.
In December 2003, Dr. Durakovic analyzed the urine of nine members of the
442nd. With funds supplied by the New York Daily News, which first published
the results, Durakovic sent the samples to a laboratory in Germany that has
some of the world's most advanced mass-spectrometry equipment. He concluded
that Ramos, Vega, Sergeant Agustin Matos, and Corporal Anthony Yonnone were
"internally contaminated by depleted uranium (D.U.) as a result of exposure
through [the] respiratory pathway."
The Pentagon contests these findings. Dr. Kilpatrick says that, when the
D.O.D. conducted its own tests, "our results [did] not mirror the results of
Dr. Durakovic." "Background" sources, such as water, soil, and therefore
food, frequently contain some uranium. The Pentagon insists that the 442nd
soldiers' urinary uranium is "within normal dietary ranges," and that "it
was not possible to distinguish D.U. from the background levels of natural
uranium." The Pentagon says it has tested about 1,000 vets from the current
conflict and found D.U. contamination in only five. Its critics insist this
is because its equipment is too insensitive and its testing methods are
At a briefing before the Iraq invasion in March 2003, Dr. Kilpatrick tried
to reassure reporters about D.U. by citing the cases of about 20 Desert
Storm vets who had D.U. shrapnel in their bodies. "We have not seen any
untoward medical consequences in these individuals," he said. "There has
been no cancer of bone or lungs, where you would expect them." It appears
that he misspoke on that occasion: one of these veterans had already had an
arm amputated for an osteosarcoma, or bone tumor, at the site where the
shrapnel entered. Dr. Kilpatrick confirms that the veteran was treated by
the V.A. in Baltimore, but says his condition may not have been linked with
the shrapnel: "Osteosarcomas are fairly common." Studies have shown that
D.U. can begin to move through the body and concentrate in the lymph nodes,
and another of the vets with shrapnel has a form of lymphatic cancer. But
this, Dr. Kilpatrick says, has "no known cause." He concedes that research
has not proved the negative, that D.U. doesn't cause cancer. But, he says,
"science doesn't in 2004 show that D.U. causes any cancer."
It does, however, show that it may. Pentagon-sponsored studies at the Armed
Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, in Bethesda, Maryland, have found
that, when D.U. was embedded in animals, several genes associated with human
tumors underwent "aberrant activation," and oncoproteins of the type found
in cancer patients turned up in their blood. The animals' urine was
"mutagenic," meaning that it could cause cells to mutate. Another institute
project found that D.U. could damage the immune system by hastening the
death of white blood cells and impairing their ability to attack bacteria.
In June 2004 the U.S. General Accounting Office (G.A.O.) issued a report to
Congress that was highly critical of government research into Gulf War
syndrome and veterans' cancer rates. The report said that the studies on
which federal agencies were basing their claim that Gulf War veterans were
no sicker than the veterans of other wars "may not be reliable" and had
"inherent limitations," with big data gaps and methodological flaws. Because
cancers can take years to develop, the G.A.O. stated, "it may be too early"
to draw any conclusions. Dr. Kilpatrick dismisses this report, saying it was
"just the opinion of a group of individuals."
Yet another Pentagon-funded study suggested that D.U. might have effects on
unborn children. After finding that pregnant rats transmitted D.U. to their
offspring through the placenta, the study concluded: "Fetal exposure to
uranium during critical prenatal development may adversely impact the future
behavioral and neurological development of offspring." In September 2004,
the New York Daily News reported that Gerard Darren Matthew, who had served
in Iraq with the 719th Transportation Company, which is based in Harlem, had
tested positive for D.U. after suffering migraines, fatigue, and a burning
sensation when urinating. Following his return, his wife became pregnant,
and their daughter, Victoria Claudette, was born missing three fingers.
Ultimately, critics say, the Pentagon underestimates the dangers of D.U.
because it measures them in the wrong way: by calculating the average amount
of D.U. radiation produced throughout the body. When we meet, Dr. Kilpatrick
gives me a report the Department of Defense issued in 2000. It concludes
that even vets with the highest exposures from embedded shrapnel could
expect over 50 years to receive a dose of just five rem, "which is the
annual limit for [nuclear industry] workers." The dose for those who inhaled
dust from burned-out tanks would be "far below the annual guideline (0.1
rem) for members of the public."
But to measure the effect of D.U. as a whole-body radiation dose is
meaningless, Asaf Durakovic says, because the dose from D.U. is intensely
concentrated in the cells around a mote of dust. The alpha particles D.U.
emits-high-energy clumps of protons and neutrons-are harmless outside the
body, because they cannot pass through skin. Inside tissue, however, they
wreak a havoc analogous to that of a penetrating shell against an enemy
tank, bombarding cell nuclei, breaking chains of DNA, damaging fragile
genes. Marcelo Valdes, a physicist and computer scientist who is president
of Dr. Durakovic's research institute, says the cells around a D.U. particle
2.5 microns in diameter will receive a maximum annual radiation dose of 16
rads. If every pocket of tissue in the body were to absorb that amount of
radiation, the total level would reach seven trillion rads-millions of times
the lethal dosage.
In the potentially thousands of hot spots inside the lungs of a person
exposed to D.U. dust, the same cells will be irradiated again and again,
until their ability to repair themselves is lost. In 1991, Durakovic found
D.U. in the urine of 14 veterans who had returned from the Gulf with
headaches, muscle and skeletal pain, fatigue, trembling, and kidney
problems. "Immediately I understood from their symptoms and their histories
that they could have been exposed to radiation," he says. Within three
years, two were dead from lung cancer: "One was 33, the other 42. Both were
nonsmokers, in previously excellent health."
D.U., he says, steadily migrates to the bones. There it irradiates the
marrow, where stem cells, the progenitors of all the other cells the body
manufactures in order to renew itself, are produced. "Stem cells are very
vulnerable," Durakovic says. "Bombarded with alpha particles, their DNA will
fall apart, potentially affecting every organ. If malfunctioning stem cells
become new liver cells, then the liver will malfunction. If stem cells are
damaged, they may form defective tissue."
If D.U. is as dangerous as its critics allege, it can kill even without
causing cancer. At her home in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Susan Riordon recalls
the return of her husband, Terry, from the Gulf in 1991. Terry, a security
captain, served in intelligence during the war: his service record refers to
his setting up a "safe haven" in the Iraqi "theatre." Possibly, Susan
speculates, this led him behind enemy lines and exposed him to D.U. during
the long aerial bombing campaign that preceded the 1991 invasion. In any
event, "when he came home, he didn't really come home," she says.
At first, Terry merely had the usual headaches, body pain, oozing rash, and
other symptoms. But later he began to suffer from another symptom which
afflicts some of those exposed to D.U.: burning semen. "If he leaked a
little lubrication from his penis, it would feel like sunburn on your skin.
If you got to the point where you did have intercourse, you were up and out
of that bed so fast-it actually causes vaginal blisters that burst and
bleed." Terry's medical records support her description. In England, Malcolm
Hooper, professor emeritus of medicinal chemistry at the University of
Sunderland, is aware of 4,000 such cases. He hypothesizes that the presence
of D.U. may be associated with the transformation of semen into a caustic
"It hurt [Terry] too. He said it was like forcing it through barbed wire,"
Riordon says. "It seemed to burn through condoms; if he got any on his
thighs or his testicles, he was in hell." In a last, desperate attempt to
save their sex life, says Riordon, "I used to fill condoms with frozen peas
and insert them [after sex] with a lubricant." That, she says, made her pain
just about bearable. Perhaps inevitably, he became impotent. "And that was
like our last little intimacy gone."
By late 1995, Terry was seriously deteriorating. Susan shows me her
journal-she titled it "The Twilight Zone"-and his medical record. It makes
harrowing reading. He lost his fine motor control to the point where he
could not button his shirt or zip his fly. While walking, he would fall
without warning. At night, he shook so violently that the bed would move
across the floor. He became unpredictably violent: one terrible day in 1997
he attacked their 16-year-old son and started choking him. By the time armed
police arrived to pull him off, the boy's bottom lip had turned blue. After
such rages, he would fall into a deep sleep for as long as 24 hours, and
awake with no memory of what had happened. That year, Terry and Susan
stopped sleeping in the same bedroom. Then "he began to barricade himself in
his room for days, surviving on granola bars and cartons of juice."
As he went downhill, Terry was assessed as completely disabled, but there
was no diagnosis as to why. His records contain references to "somatization
disorder," post-traumatic stress, and depression. In 1995 the army doctors
even suggested that he had become ill only after reading of Gulf War
syndrome. Through 1998 and 1999, he began to lose all cognitive functions
and was sometimes lucid for just a few hours each week.
Even after he died, on April 29, 1999, Terry's Canadian doctors remained
unable to explain his illness. "This patient has a history [of] 'Gulf War
Syndrome' with multiple motor, sensory and emotional problems," the autopsy
report by pathologist Dr. B. Jollymore, of Yarmouth, begins. "During
extensive investigation, no definitive diagnosis has been determined....
Essentially it appears that this gentleman remains an enigma in death as he
was in life."
Not long before Terry's death, Susan Riordon had learned of Asaf Durakovic,
and of the possibility that her husband absorbed D.U. His urine-test
results-showing a high D.U. concentration eight years after he was
presumably exposed-came through on Monday, April 26: "Tuesday he was
reasonably cognitive, and was able to tell me that he wanted his body and
organs to go to Dr. Durakovic," she remembers. "He knew it was too late to
help him, but he made me promise that his body could help the international
community. On the Wednesday, I completed the purchase of this house. On
Thursday, he was dead.
"It was a very strange death. He was very peaceful. I've always felt that
Asaf allowed Terry to go: knowing he was D.U.-positive meant he wasn't crazy
anymore. Those last days he was calm. He wasn't putting the phone in the
microwave; he had no more mood swings."
After Riordon's death, Dr. Durakovic and his colleagues found accumulations
of D.U. in his bones and lungs.
Dr. Durakovic suspects the military of minimizing the health and
environmental consequences of D.U. weapons, and suggests two reasons it may
have for doing so: "to keep them off the list of war criminals, and to avoid
paying compensation which could run into billions of dollars." To this might
be added a third: depleted uranium, because of its unique armor-penetrating
capabilities, has become a defining feature of American warfare, one whose
loss would be intolerable to military planners.
In 1991, the U.S. used D.U. weapons to kill thousands of Iraqis in tanks and
armored vehicles on the "highway of death" from Kuwait to Basra. The
one-sided victory ushered in a new era of "lethality overmatch"-the ability
to strike an enemy with virtual impunity. A Pentagon pamphlet from 2003
states that a central objective of the American military is to "generate
dominant lethality overmatch across the full spectrum of operations," and no
weapon is better suited to achieving that goal than D.U.
The value of depleted uranium was spelled out more simply in a Pentagon
briefing by Colonel James Naughton of the army's Materiel Command in March
2003, just before the Iraq invasion: "What we want to be able to do is
strike the target from farther away than we can be hit back.... 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 D.U. gives us that advantage."
If the Pentagon is right about the risks of D.U., such statements should not
be controversial. If it is wrong, says retired army colonel Dr. Andras
Korenyi-Both, who headed one of the main field hospitals during Desert Storm
and later conducted some of the first research into Gulf War syndrome, the
position is less clear-cut. "You'd have to deal with the question of whether
it's better not to use D.U. and have more of your soldiers die in battle or
to use D.U. and lose very few in the field-but have them get sick and die
when they get home."
One desert morning in the early spring of 1991, while sitting in his office
at the Eskan Village military compound near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Lieutenant
Doug Rokke was shown a memorandum. Rokke, a health physicist and training
specialist, was a reservist and had recently been ordered to join the Third
U.S. Army's depleted-uranium-assessment team, assigned to clean up and move
American vehicles hit by friendly fire during Operation Desert Storm. The
memo, dated March 1, came from a senior military officer at the Los Alamos
National Laboratory, in New Mexico.
During the Gulf War, it said, "D.U. penetrators were very effective against
Iraqi armor." However, "there has been and continues to be a concern
regarding the impact of D.U. on the environment. Therefore, if no one makes
a case for the effectiveness of D.U. on the battlefield, D.U. rounds may
become politically unacceptable and thus, be deleted from the arsenal.... I
believe we should keep this sensitive issue at mind when after-action
reports are written."
Rokke says: "I interpreted the memo to mean: we want this stuff-don't write
anything that might make it difficult for us to use it again."
Rokke's assignment was dangerous and unpleasant. The vehicles were coated
with uranium-oxide soot, and dust lay in the sand outside. He wore a mask,
but it didn't help. "We could taste it and smell it," he says of the D.U.
"It tasted very strong-and unmistakable." Years later, he says, he was found
to be excreting uranium at 5,000 times the normal level. Now 55, he pants
during ordinary conversation and says he still gets a rash like the one
Raymond Ramos of the 442nd suffers from. In addition, Rokke has joint pains,
muscle aches, and cataracts.
In 1994, Rokke became director of a Pentagon project designed to learn more
about D.U. contamination and to develop training that would minimize its
risks. "I'm a warrior, and warriors want to fulfill their mission," Rokke
says. "I went into this wanting to make it work, to work out how to use D.U.
safely, and to show other soldiers how to do so and how to clean it up. This
was not science out of a book, but science done by blowing the shit out of
tanks and seeing what happens. And as we did this work, slowly it dawned on
me that we were screwed. You can't do this safely in combat conditions. You
can't decontaminate the environment or your own troops."
Rokke and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments at the U.S.
Department of Energy's Nevada nuclear-test site. They set fire to a Bradley
loaded with D.U. rounds and fired D.U. shells at old Soviet tanks. At his
remote, ramshackle farmhouse amid the rural flatlands of central Illinois,
Rokke shows me videos of his tests. Most spectacular are those shot at
night, which depict the fiery streak of the D.U. round, already burning
before impact, followed by the red cascade of the debris cloud. "Everything
we hit we destroyed," he says. "I tell you, these things are just ...
The papers Rokke wrote describing his findings are more sobering. He
recorded levels of contamination that were 15 times the army's permissible
levels in tanks hit by D.U., and up to 4.5 times such levels in clothing
exposed to D.U.
The good news was that it was possible, using a special Department of Energy
vacuum cleaner designed for sucking up radioactive waste, to reduce
contamination from vehicles and equipment to near official limits, and to
"mask" the intense radiation around holes left by D.U. projectiles by
sealing them with layers of foam caulking, paint, or cardboard. (Such work,
Rokke wrote, would naturally have to be carried out by teams in full
radiological-protection suits and respirators.)
When it came to clothes, however, D.U. particles "became imbedded in the
clothing and could not be removed with brushing or other abrasive methods."
Rokke found that even after he tried to decontaminate them the clothes were
still registering between two and three times the limit. "This may pose a
significant logistics impact," Rokke wrote, with some understatement.
The elaborate procedures required to decontaminate equipment, meanwhile,
would be almost impossible to implement in combat. "On a real battlefield,
it's not like there's any control," Rokke says. "It's chaos. Maybe it's
night. Who's going to come along and isolate contaminated enemy tanks?
You've got a pile of rubble and mess and you're still coming under fire. The
idea that you're going to come out in radiological suits and vacuum up a
building or a smashed T-72 [tank]-it's ridiculous."
Large amounts of black D.U.-oxide dust were readily visible within 50 meters
of a tank hit by penetrators and within 100 meters of the D.U.-packed
Bradley that was set on fire. But less obvious amounts were easily detected
at much greater distances. Worse, such dust could be "re-suspended" in the
atmosphere "upon contact, if wind blew, or during movement." For American
troops, that meant that "respiratory and skin protection is warranted during
all phases of recovery." For civilians, even ones at considerable distances,
it meant they might be exposed to windblown D.U. far into the future.
After Rokke completed the project, he was appointed head of the lab at Fort
McClellan where it had been based. He resigned the staff physicist post he'd
held for 19 years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and
moved south with his family. Early in 1996, after he began to voice the
conclusions he was drawing about the future viability of D.U. weapons, he
was fired. "Then I remembered the Los Alamos memo," he says. "They'd wanted
'proponency' for D.U. weapons, and I was giving them the opposite." I ask
Dr. Kilpatrick, the D.O.D. spokesman on D.U., about Rokke's test firings.
His reply: "One, he never did that. He was in Nevada as an observer. He was
not part of that program at all. At that time he was working in education at
an army school, and his assignment was to develop educational materials for
troops." Rokke, he says, may have spent a few days observing the tests but
did not organize them.
Documents from Rokke's service record tell a different story. His appraisal
from December 1, 1995, written by Dr. Ed Battle, then chief of the radiation
laboratories at Fort McClellan, describes Rokke's mission as follows: to
"plan, coordinate, supervise and implement the U.S. Army ... depleted
uranium training development project." He continued: "Captain Rokke has
repeatedly demonstrated the ability to function well above his current rank
and is as effective as any I have known." He had directly participated in
"extremely crucial tests at the Nevada Atomic Test Site," and his
achievements had been "absolutely phenomenal."
Rokke was awarded two medals for his work. The citation for one commended
him for "meritorious service while assigned as the depleted uranium project
leader. Your outstanding achievements have prepared our soldiers for hazards
and will have a vast payoff in the health, safety, and protection of all
Rokke's work in Nevada helped persuade the military that D.U. weapons had to
be dealt with carefully. On September 16, 2002, General Eric Shinseki, the
U.S. Army chief of staff, signed Army Regulation 700-48, which sets forth
strict rules for handling items, including destroyed or disabled enemy
targets, that have been hit and contaminated by D.U. "During peacetime or as
soon as operational risk permits," it states, local commanders must
"identify, segregate, isolate, secure, and label all RCE [radiologically
contaminated equipment]. Procedures to minimize the spread of radioactivity
will be implemented as soon as possible." Under pre-existing regulations,
damaged vehicles should be moved to a collection point or maintenance
facility, and "covered and wrapped with canvas or plastic tarp to prevent
spread of contaminants," with loose items placed in double plastic bags.
Soldiers who carry out such tasks should wear protective equipment.
The burned-out tanks behind the 442nd's barracks in Samawah may not have
been the only D.U.-contaminated pieces of equipment to be left where they
lay. In the fall of 2003, Tedd Weyman, a colleague of Dr. Durakovic's, spent
16 days in Iraq, taking samples and observing the response of coalition
forces to General Shinseki's directive. "When tanks shot up by D.U.
munitions were removed, I saw no precautions being taken at all," he says.
"Ordinary soldiers with no protection just came along and used chains to
load them onto flatbeds, towing them away just as they might your car if it
broke down on the highway. They took them to bases with British and American
troops and left them in the open." Time after time, Weyman recorded high
levels of contamination-so high that on his return to Canada he was found to
have 4.5 times the normal level of uranium in his own urine.
A Pentagon memo, signed on May 30, 2003, by Dr. William Winkenwerder, an
assistant defense secretary, says that any American personnel "who were in,
on, or near combat vehicles at the time they were struck by D.U. rounds," or
who entered such vehicles or fought fires involving D.U. munitions, should
be assessed for possible exposure and receive appropriate health care. This
category could be said to include any soldier who fought in, or cleaned up
after, battles with Iraqi armor.
Still, the Pentagon insists that the risks remain acceptably small. "There
isn't any recognized disease from exposure to natural or depleted uranium,"
Dr. Kilpatrick says. He tells me that America will mount a thorough cleanup
in Iraq, disposing of any D.U. fragments and burying damaged vehicles in
unpopulated locations, but that, for the time being, such an operation is
impossible. "We really can't begin any environmental assessment or cleanup
while there's ongoing combat." Nevertheless, he says, there's no cause for
concern. "I think we can be very confident that what is in the environment
does not create a hazard for those living in the environment and working in
As this article was going to press, the Pentagon published the findings of a
new study that, according to Dr. Kilpatrick, shows D.U. to be a "lethal but
safe weapons system."
In his Pentagon briefing in March 2003, Dr. Kilpatrick said that even if
D.U. weapons did generate toxic dust, it would not spread. "It falls to the
ground very quickly-usually within about a 50-meter range," he said. "It's
heavy. It's 1.7 times as heavy as lead. So even if it's a small dust
particle ... it stays on the ground." Evidence that this is not the case
comes from somewhere much closer than Iraq-an abandoned D.U.-weapons factory
in Colonie, New York, a few miles from Albany, the state capital.
In 1958, a corporation called National Lead began making depleted-uranium
products at a plant on Central Avenue, surrounded by houses and an Amtrak
line. In 1979, just as the plant was increasing its production of D.U.
ammunition to meet a new Pentagon contract, a whistle-blower from inside the
plant told the county health department that N.L. was releasing large
amounts of D.U. oxide into the environment.
Over the next two years, he and other workers testified before both the New
York State Assembly and a local residents' campaign group. They painted a
picture of reckless neglect. D.U. chips and shavings were simply
incinerated, and the resulting oxide dust passed into the atmosphere through
the chimneys. "I used to do a lot of burning," William Luther told the
governor's task force in 1982. "They told me to do it at night so the black
smoke wouldn't be seen." Later, many of the workers were found to have
inhaled huge doses into their lungs, and some developed cancers and other
illnesses at relatively young ages.
In January 1980 the state forced N.L. to agree to limit its radioactive
emissions to 500 microcuries per year. The following month, the state shut
the plant down. In January alone, the D.U.-chip burner had released 2,000
microcuries. An official environmental survey produced horrifying results.
Soil in the gardens of homes near the plant was emitting radiation at up to
300 times the normal background level for upstate New York. Inside the
11-acre factory site, readings were up to five times higher.
The federal government has been spending tax dollars to clean up the Colonie
site for the past 19 years, under a program called fusrap-the Formerly
Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program. Today, all that is left of the
Colonie plant are enormous piles of earth, constantly moistened with hoses
and secured by giant tarpaulins to prevent dispersal, and a few deep pits.
In its autumn 2004 bulletin to residents, the fusrap team disclosed that it
had so far removed 125,242 tons of contaminated soil from the area, all of
which have been buried at radioactive-waste sites in Utah and Idaho. In some
places, the excavations are more than 10 feet deep. fusrap had also
discovered contamination in the neighboring Patroon Creek, where children
used to play, and in the reservoir it feeds, and had treated 23.5 million
gallons of contaminated water. The cost so far has been about $155 million,
and the earliest forecast for the work's completion is 2008.
Years before fusrap began to dig, there were data to suggest that D.U.
particles-and those emitted at Colonie are approximately the same size as
those produced by weapons-can travel much farther than 50 meters. In 1979,
nuclear physicist Len Dietz was working at a lab operated by General
Electric in Schenectady, 10 miles west of Colonie. "We had air filters all
around our perimeter fence," he recalls. "One day our radiological manager
told me we had a problem: one of the filters was showing abnormally high
alpha radiation. Much to our surprise, we found D.U. in it. There could only
be one source: the N.L. plant." Dietz had other filters checked both in
Schenectady and at other G.E. sites. The three that were farthest away were
in West Milton, 26 miles northwest, and upwind, of Colonie. All the filters
contained pure Colonie D.U. "Effectively," says Dietz, "the particles' range
In August 2003, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
published a short report on Colonie. On the one hand, it declared that the
pollution produced when the plant was operating could have increased the
risks of kidney disease and lung cancer. Because the source of the danger
had shut down, however, there was now "no apparent public health hazard."
Thus there was no need to conduct a full epidemiological study of those who
had lived near and worked at the factory-the one way to produce hard
scientific data on what the health consequences of measurable D.U.
contamination actually are.
The people of Colonie have been trying to collect health data of their own.
Sharon Herr, 45, lived near the plant for nine years. She used to work 60
hours a week at two jobs-as a clerk in the state government and as a
real-estate agent. Now she too is sick, and suffers symptoms which sound
like a textbook case of Gulf War syndrome: "Fourteen years ago, I lost my
grip to the point where I can't turn keys. I'm stiff, with bad joint and
muscle pain, which has got progressively worse. I can't go upstairs without
getting out of breath. I get fatigue so intense there are days I just can't
do much. And I fall down-I'll be out walking and suddenly I fall." Together
with her friend Anne Rabe, 49, a campaigner against N.L. since the 1980s,
she has sent questionnaires to as many of the people who lived on the
streets close to the plant as possible. So far, they have almost 400
Among those who responded were people with rare cancers or cancers that
appeared at an unusually young age, and families whose children had birth
defects. There were 17 cases of kidney problems, 15 of lung cancer, and 11
of leukemia. There were also five thyroid cancers and 16 examples of other
thyroid problems-all conditions associated with radiation. Other people
described symptoms similar to Herr's. Altogether, 174 of those in the sample
had been diagnosed with one kind of cancer or another. American women have
about a 33 percent chance of getting cancer in their lifetimes, mostly after
the age of 60. (For men, it's nearly 50 percent.) Some of the Colonie cancer
victims are two decades younger. "We have what look like possible suspicious
clusters," says Rabe. "A health study here is a perfect opportunity to see
how harmful this stuff really is."
On June 14, 2004, the army's Physical Evaluation Board, the body that
decides whether a soldier should get sickness pay, convened to evaluate the
case of Raymond Ramos of the 442nd Military Police company. It followed the
Pentagon's approach, not Dr. Durakovic's. The board examined his Walter Reed
medical-file summary, which describes his symptoms in detail, suggests that
they may have been caused by serving in Iraq, and accepts that "achieving a
cure is not a realistic treatment objective." But the summary mentions no
physical reason for them at all, let alone depleted uranium.
Like many veterans of the first Gulf War, Ramos was told by the board that
his disability had been caused primarily by post-traumatic stress. It did
not derive "from injury or disease received in the line of duty as a direct
result of armed conflict." Instead, his record says, he got "scared in the
midst of a riot" and was "emotionally upset by reports of battle
casualties." Although he was too sick to go back to work as a narcotics cop,
he would get a disability benefit fixed at $1,197 a month, just 30 percent
of his basic military pay.
On the day we meet, in September 2004, his symptoms are hardly alleviated.
"I'm in lots of pain in my joints. I'm constantly fatigued-I can fall asleep
at the drop of a dime. My wife tells me things and I just forget. It's not
fair to my family."
For the time being, the case against D.U. appears to remain unproved. But if
Asaf Durakovic, Doug Rokke, and their many allies around the world are
right, and the Pentagon wrong, the costs-human, legal, and financial-will be
incalculable. They may also be widespread. In October, the regional health
authority of Sardinia, Italy, began hearings to investigate illnesses
suffered by people who live near a U.S. firing range there that tests D.U.
In 2002 the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of
Human Rights declared that depleted uranium was a weapon of mass
destruction, and its use a breach of international law. But the difference
between D.U. and the W.M.D. that formed the rationale for the Iraqi invasion
is that depleted uranium may have a boomerang effect, afflicting the
soldiers of the army that fires it as well as the enemy victims of
The four members of the 442nd who tested positive all say they have met
soldiers from other units during their medical treatment who complain of
similar ailments, and fear that they too may have been exposed. "It's bad
enough being sent out there knowing you could be killed in combat," Raymond
Ramos says. "But people are at risk of bringing something back that might
kill them slowly. That's not right."
David Rose is a Vanity Fair contributing editor. His book Guantánamo: The
War on Human Rights is an in-depth investigation of the atrocities taking
place at the Cuban prison.