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Weapon of Choice: Depleted Uranium


These 30mm munitions (jackets and penetrators) are made with depleted uranium. (Photo courtesy of the United Nations Environment Program)

PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kan. - Since 1991 the U.S. military has admitted to using depleted uranium in armor and ammunition on a large scale. But since then, a debate has raged about its long-term health effects on soldiers and their families.

Could one of the most effective military tools in their arsenal actually be harming soldiers?

Jerry Wheat is one of the hundreds of thousands of American men and women who have enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces.

"I was in the army for 4 years and 10 months. I joined in 1989 as a 19 Delta, which is a cavalry scout," said Wheat. "My job was to go out and look for the enemy."

Wheat was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star after his 1991 deployment in Gulf War I.

Wheat said his unit was in Iraq, heading toward Basra, when it got caught up in a firefight.

"My Bradley was hit again with another tank round, and that tank round knocked me unconscious," said Wheat.

In an instant flash of fire, smoke and shrapnel, Wheat became a casualty of war. But without knowing it, his battle was just beginning.

"I took shrapnel in the back of my head. I had some second- and third-degree burns, and there was about 25 pieces of shrapnel from my head all the way down my back," said Wheat.

The military initially denied it, but Wheat ultimately learned that the pieces of shrapnel embedded in his head and back were shards from "friendly fire" and some of the fragments contained depleted uranium.

"As a soldier, you know, most of us didn't know what DU was or made aware of to stay away from it," said Wheat.

When uranium is enriched for use as nuclear fuel or for nuclear weapons, a by-product called depleted uranium -- DU, for short -- is made. It is a form of uranium minus the most radioactive isotope.

The military discarded DU until it discovered that its properties as a heavy metal made it perfect to protect U.S. troops as armor and was very effective as ammunition.

Col. Mark Melanson, head of radiation safety at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is the military's foremost expert on depleted uranium and its combat applications.

"When it encounters armor, it actually sharpens to a fine point as it penetrates into the armor," said Melanson. "DU has been well studied and the health effects are well understood. There are overwhelming international and national consensus in the scientific community of what the risks are."

But many critics aren't convinced.

Dan Fahey, a Navy veteran, has been studying DU and its effects for more than a decade. He points out that the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration have thousands of studies and reams of test data on rats.

"Well, it's clear the military has done a lot of studies on DU, but the question is: are they doing the right studies?" said Fahey. "It's really time that the government does an adequate health study of veterans, and because the rat studies have shown that DU is carcinogenic, it can cause a variety of health problems."

Only 77 soldiers from Gulf War I and just four from Operation Iraqi Freedom are being tracked clinically. Jerry Wheat is one of them.

"I had a tumor removed in the 90s from my left arm that was in the bone, and DU stores in the bone," said Wheat.

Wheat said he has endured a series of health problems.

"I come back from the Gulf and have these abdominal problems and just not feeling well in general, and then my wife miscarriages," said Wheat.

Every two years, Wheat takes part in clinical surveillance headed by Dr. Melissa McDiarmid.

Since 1996, McDiarmid has been Medical Director of the DU Program at the Baltimore VA, responsible for studying and tracking the health effects on exposed soldiers.

"Your health risk is not only determined by your dose but by your duration of exposure. So those two things are working together," said McDiarmid. "It might be surprising for people to know that even the highest in the group that I follow who have retained fragments ... are just approaching what used to be allowable occupational limits for uranium exposure among workers 40 and 50 years ago."

Fahey criticizes the testing methods, characterizing the results as a case of "don't look, don't find."

"So, they have structured their studies, in my opinion, to come out with conclusions that validate their spin, which is that DU is completely harmless," said Fahey.

Fahey suggested that because DU continues to be a critical tactical advantage on the battlefield, the military has a vested interest in keeping it there.

"So, the thing about DU is that it's not always safe and not always dangerous," said Melanson. "As a scientist, my duty is to take a look at what the science says and assess the risks for the Army on what the risks from DU are. I am not an advocate for DU. I am not opposed to DU. I am neutral."

As experts debate the safety and toxicity of DU and the current testing methods for detecting it, Wheat said he lives with it every day and is proof of its effects.

"Prior to being exposed to DU I didn't have this and the tumor, and it's one thing after another," said Wheat.

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