Apr 28, 2003
When the U.S. soldiers come home from Iraq, they will undoubtedly be greeted by big parades, marching bands and long-winded speeches by generals and politicians.
Then they will return to reality: unemployment for a lot of them and – for many more – the effects of the war that follow them home.
Many will come down with a whole series of health ailments directly related to depleted uranium (DU) – which the U.S. military uses to coat much of its ammunition. One of the densest substances known, DU is highly effective at penetrating any armor. Military experts brag that uranium tipped projectiles pass through tank armor like a hot knife through butter.
DU also happens to be radioactive. It is called "depleted" only because it is no longer useful for making fuel for nuclear bombs or nuclear reactors. But it continues to release harmful radiation, and will continue to do so for billions of years. When DU munitions explode, they vaporize or turn into a fine dust that can be inhaled into the lungs or absorbed by the skin. Scientists have found that tiny amounts then settle in the bones and many vital organs, where it emits radiation causing extensive damage, including birth defects in soldiers' children.
The U.S. military first massively employed DU during the first Gulf War in 1991. The Pentagon issued no warnings or precautions, leaving the soldiers in complete ignorance of what they were dealing with. For weeks and months, hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers camped in areas that were littered with DU shells. The Iraqi population continues to live in these areas.
Not long after that war ended, many veterans began to report all kinds of health problems. Jerry Wheat, a veteran interviewed on Canadian television, said that for no apparent reason his weight dropped steeply from 220 to 160 pounds. He also suffered from crippling joint pain and abdominal problems. A few years later, he got a tumor on his shoulder.
During the war, Wheat, who was awarded a Purple Heart, had been seriously wounded when a vehicle that he was in had been hit twice by friendly fire. The shells that struck were made from DU. Only when Wheat's father, who is a technician at the famous Los Alamos Nuclear Research Center, tested the shrapnel that came from his son's body and gear, did anyone discover that the shrapnel was radioactive.
Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs has classified nearly one out of three of the 504,000 eligible veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War as disabled. That's the highest rate of disability for any modern war. More than 10,000 of these veterans have already died. (Many more Iraqis have succumbed, but the U.S. keeps no count of this.)
The Pentagon still denies that DU is toxic or dangerous. It continues to refuse to do any studies. For many years, it even denied veterans treatment or benefits. And it continued to use DU in its weapons – first in Bosnia, now in this current war.
Almost ten times as much DU was used in the current Iraq war as in the first war. Most of that was fired on Baghdad – the biggest Iraqi population center. This is where most U.S. soldiers are also currently stationed.
Countless U.S. vets and Iraqis alike have been exposed to radioactive dust from DU. Today, the damage may still be invisible. But they have been wounded just as seriously as if they had been directly struck by a bullet or bomb. Both those directly exposed to DU dust as well as those who are yet to be born are the victims of the real weapons of mass destruction, held not by Saddam Hussein, but by U.S. imperialism.
Giving the soldiers a parade when they come home doesn't change that.