The casualty rate among our servicemen fighting the war in Iraq might be far greater than anyone expects. A growing body of evidence appears to demonstrate that Americans were misled about the full scope of deaths and injuries to U.S. troops in the first Gulf War and that a similar tragedy is likely in this war.
The source of many of these casualties may not come from Iraqi firepower or chemical and biological weapons, but from the after-effects of U.S. armaments. When the desert dust cleared from Operation Desert Storm's record-breaking 100-hour ground war in 1991, American casualties amounted to 147 killed and 457 wounded. However, the long-term damage is just beginning to surface.
Of the 700,000 U.S. troops sent to the Persian Gulf, Department of Veteran Affairs statistics indicate that almost 10,000 have died since the first Gulf War, almost 200,000 have filed claims for medical and compensation benefits and more than 150,000 were granted service-connected benefits.
Col. David Hackworth, one of America's most decorated officers, says that the Gulf War conjures up the worst memories of Vietnam, where soldiers were forced to fight a two-front war against the Viet Cong and against the Pentagon's use of deadly chemicals. He is disgusted that Gulf War vets are getting the same runaround that Vietnam vets faced for more than 20 years in the Agent Orange debacle. He worries that the current war with Iraq will be devastating on U.S. servicemen.
No one knows the harm done to Gulf War vets better than Dr. Doug Rokke, a U.S. Army major and former director of the Pentagon's Depleted Uranium Project after the 1991 Gulf War. According to Rokke, tens of thousands of troops were exposed to Depleted Uranium or DU, a benign name for uranium-238, the waste product of nuclear reactors and weapons. DU is a bad marriage between two unsavory partners: the nuclear industry, which needed a home for nearly one billion tons of hazardous waste, and the U.S. military that desired cheap and effective munitions. They created DU by molding nuclear-waste tailings into bullets and bombs.
Because of DU's high density, it makes a perfect armor-penetrating weapon that destroys tanks, armored personnel carriers and underground bunkers. When DU hits its target, it creates a firestorm of uranium dioxide dust, leaving microscopic fragments that float through the air, carried by the wind for miles.
MANY VETS HAVE CANCER
Based on his research, Rokke discovered that when DU is inhaled, it ravages the lungs and wreaks havoc in the body, destroying vital organs and immune systems. Rokke called for an immediate ban on DU, costing him his career. His exposure to DU may cost him his life. Of the 100 men Rokke had working under him, 30 have died and the rest suffer from cancers and immune-deficiency symptoms similar to many Gulf War veterans.
Dr. Asaf Durakovic, former head of nuclear medicine at a Veterans Ad ministration medical facility, discovered that Gulf War vets treated at his hospital showed classic symptoms of radiation exposure. Yet when he tried to investigate a link between DU and his patients' disease, he came under intense scrutiny, ultimately finding his 18-year career abruptly terminated.
But his duty to his patients drove him to continue his research, discovering life-threatening levels of DU in Gulf veterans 10 years after the war. Those tested demonstrated a significant presence of DU caused by inhalation of uranium dust.
Depleted uranium munitions are playing key roles in Iraq, where the Pentagon's Abrams tanks and A-10 fighter jets are being used, exposing our troops once again to the serious consequences of our own devices -- quite possibly for periods of time far greater than in the first Gulf War.
BRING THE TROOPS HOME
If our brave men and women are placed in harm's way unnecessarily, their only hope may be that we, the people, respond by accepting our duty to protect and defend the interests of our soldiers. We can put our heads in the sand and allow this unjustified war to continue, notwithstanding its potentially staggering consequences to our servicemen, or we can enlist our own constitutional authority by supporting our troops in the only meaningful way possible -- bringing them home immediately.
After another war on Iraq, who will defend our veterans when they return, their healthy lives left behind on the desert sands of the Middle East?
David Weintraub is an attorney in Miami.
Copyright 2003 Miami Herald