Sickened Iraq vets cite depleted uranium
NEW YORK --It takes at least 10 minutes and a large glass of orange juice to wash down all the pills -- morphine, methadone, a muscle relaxant, an antidepressant, a stool softener. Viagra for sexual dysfunction. Valium for his nerves.
Four hours later, Herbert Reed will swallow another 15 mg of morphine to cut the pain clenching every part of his body. He will do it twice more before the day is done.
Since he left a bombed-out train depot in Iraq, his gums bleed. There is more blood in his urine, and still more in his stool. Bright light hurts his eyes. A tumor has been removed from his thyroid. Rashes erupt everywhere, itching so badly they seem to live inside his skin. Migraines cleave his skull. His joints ache, grating like door hinges in need of oil.
There is something massively wrong with Herbert Reed, though no one is sure what it is. He believes he knows the cause, but he cannot convince anyone caring for him that the military's new favorite weapon has made him terrifyingly sick.
In the sprawling bureaucracy of the Department of Veterans Affairs, he has many caretakers. An internist, a neurologist, a pain-management specialist, a psychologist, an orthopedic surgeon and a dermatologist. He cannot function without his stupefying arsenal of medications, but they exact a high price.
"I'm just a zombie walking around," he says.
Reed believes depleted uranium has contaminated him and his life. He now walks point in a vitriolic war over the Pentagon's arsenal of it -- thousands of shells and hundreds of tanks coated with the metal that is radioactive, chemically toxic, and nearly twice as dense as lead.
A shell coated with depleted uranium pierces a tank like a hot knife through butter, exploding on impact into a charring inferno. As tank armor, it repels artillery assaults. It also leaves behind a fine radioactive dust with a half-life of 4.5 billion years.
Depleted uranium is the garbage left from producing enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and energy plants. It is 60 percent as radioactive as natural uranium. The U.S. has an estimated 1.5 billion pounds of it, sitting in hazardous waste storage sites across the country. Meaning it is plentiful and cheap as well as highly effective.
Reed says he unknowingly breathed DU dust while living with his unit in Samawah, Iraq. He was med-evaced out in July 2003, nearly unable to walk because of lightning-strike pains from herniated discs in his spine. Then began a strange series of symptoms he'd never experienced in his previously healthy life.
At Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C, he ran into a buddy from his unit. And another, and another, and in the tedium of hospital life between doctor visits and the dispensing of meds, they began to talk.
"We all had migraines. We all felt sick," Reed says. "The doctors said, 'It's all in your head.' "
Then the medic from their unit showed up. He too, was suffering. That made eight sick soldiers from the 442nd Military Police, an Army National Guard unit made up of mostly cops and correctional officers from the New York area.
But the medic knew something the others didn't.
Dutch marines had taken over the abandoned train depot dubbed Camp Smitty, which was surrounded by tank skeletons, unexploded ordnance and shell casings. They'd brought radiation-detection devices. The readings were so hot, the Dutch set up camp in the middle of the desert rather than live in the station ruins.
"We got on the Internet," Reed said, "and we started researching depleted uranium."
Then they contacted The New York Daily News, which paid for sophisticated urine tests available only overseas.
Then they hired a lawyer.
Reed, Gerard Matthew, Raymond Ramos, Hector Vega, Augustin Matos, Anthony Yonnone, Jerry Ojeda and Anthony Phillip all have depleted uranium in their urine, according to tests done in December 2003, while they bounced for months between Walter Reed and New Jersey's Fort Dix medical center, seeking relief that never came.
The analyses were done in Germany, by a Frankfurt professor who developed a depleted uranium test with Randall Parrish, a professor of isotope geology at the University of Leicester in Britain.
The veterans, using their positive results as evidence, have sued the U.S. Army, claiming officials knew the hazards of depleted uranium, but concealed the risks.
The Department of Defense says depleted uranium is powerful and safe, and not that worrisome.
Four of the highest-registering samples from Frankfurt were sent to the VA. Those results were negative, Reed said. "Their test just isn't as sophisticated," he said. "And when we first asked to be tested, they told us there wasn't one. They've lied to us all along."
The VA's testing methodology is safe and accurate, the agency says. More than 2,100 soldiers from the current war have asked to be tested; only 8 had DU in their urine, the VA said.
The term depleted uranium is linguistically radioactive. Simply uttering the words can prompt a reaction akin to preaching atheism at tent revival. Heads shake, eyes roll, opinions are yelled from all sides.
"The Department of Defense takes the position that you can eat it for breakfast and it poses no threat at all," said Steve Robinson of the National Gulf War Resource Center, which helps veterans with various problems, including navigating the labyrinth of VA health care. "Then you have far-left groups that ... declare it a crime against humanity."
Several countries use it as weaponry, including Britain, which fired it during the 2003 Iraq invasion.
An estimated 286 tons of DU munitions were fired by the U.S. in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991. An estimated 130 tons were shot toppling Saddam Hussein.
Depleted uranium can enter the human body by inhalation, the most dangerous method; by ingesting contaminated food or eating with contaminated hands; by getting dust or debris in an open wound, or by being struck by shrapnel, which often is not removed because doing so would be more dangerous than leaving it.
Inhaled, it can lodge in the lungs. As with imbedded shrapnel, this is doubly dangerous -- not only are the particles themselves physically destructive, they emit radiation.
A moderate voice on the divisive DU spectrum belongs to Dan Fahey, a doctoral student at the University of California at Berkeley, who has studied the issue for years and also served in the Gulf War before leaving the military as a conscientious objector.
"I've been working on this since '93 and I've just given up hope," he said. "I've spoken to successive federal committees and elected officials ... who then side with the Pentagon. Nothing changes."
At the other end are a collection of conspiracy-theorists and Internet proselytizers who say using such weapons constitutes genocide. Two of the most vocal opponents recently suggested that a depleted-uranium missile, not a hijacked jetliner, struck the Pentagon in 2001.
"The bottom line is it's more hazardous than the Pentagon admits," Fahey said, "but it's not as hazardous as the hard-line activist groups say it is. And there's a real dearth of information about how DU affects humans."
There are several studies on how it affects animals, though their results are not, of course, directly applicable to humans. Military research on mice shows that depleted uranium can enter the bloodstream and come to rest in bones, the brain, kidneys and lymph nodes. Other research in rats shows that DU can result in cancerous tumors and genetic mutations, and pass from mother to unborn child, resulting in birth defects.
Iraqi doctors reported significant increases in birth defects and childhood cancers after the 1991 invasion.
Iraqi authorities "found that uranium, which affected the blood cells, had a serious impact on health: The number of cases of leukemia had increased considerably, as had the incidence of fetal deformities," the U.N. reported.
Depleted uranium can also contaminate soil and water, and coat buildings with radioactive dust, which can by carried by wind and sandstorms.
In 2005, the U.N. Environmental Program identified 311 polluted sites in Iraq. Cleaning them will take at least $40 million and several years, the agency said. Nothing can start until the fighting stops.
Fifteen years after it was first used in battle, there is only one U.S. government study monitoring veterans exposed to depleted uranium.
Number of soldiers in the survey: 32. Number of soldiers in both Iraq wars: more than 900,000.
The study group's size is controversial -- far too small, say experts including Fahey -- and so are the findings of the voluntary, Baltimore-based study.
It has found "no clinically significant" health effects from depleted uranium exposure in the study subjects, according to its researchers.
Critics say the VA has downplayed participants' health problems, including not reporting one soldier who developed cancer, and another who developed a bone tumor.
So for now, depleted uranium falls into the quagmire of Gulf War Syndrome, from which no treatment has emerged despite the government's spending of at least $300 million.
About 30 percent of the 700,000 men and women who served in the first Gulf War still suffer a baffling array of symptoms very similar to those reported by Reed's unit.
Depleted uranium has long been suspected as a possible contributor to Gulf War Syndrome, and in the mid-90s, veterans helped push the military into tracking soldiers exposed to it.
But for all their efforts, what they got in the end was a questionnaire dispensed to homeward-bound soldiers asking about mental health, nightmares, losing control, exposure to dangerous and radioactive chemicals.
But, the veterans persisted, how would soldiers know they'd been exposed? Radiation is invisible, tasteless, and has no smell. And what exhausted, homesick, war-addled soldier would check a box that would only send him or her to a military medical center to be poked and prodded and questioned and tested?
It will take years to determine how depleted uranium affected soldiers from this war. After Vietnam, veterans, in numbers that grew with the passage of time, complained of joint aches, night sweats, bloody feces, migraine headaches, unexplained rashes and violent behavior; some developed cancers.
It took more than 25 years for the Pentagon to acknowledge that Agent Orange -- a corrosive defoliant used to melt the jungles of Vietnam and flush out the enemy -- was linked to those sufferings.
It took 40 years for the military to compensate sick World War II vets exposed to massive blasts of radiation during tests of the atomic bomb.
In 2002, Congress voted to not let that happen again.
It established the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses -- comprised of scientists, physicians and veterans advocates. It reports to the secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Its mandate is to judge all research and all efforts to treat Gulf War Syndrome patients against a single standard: Have sick soldiers been made better?
The answer, according to the committee, is no.
"Regrettably, after four years of operation neither the Committee nor (the) VA can report progress toward this goal," stated its December 2005 report. "Research has not produced effective treatments for these conditions nor shown that existing treatments are significantly effective."
And so time marches on, as do soldiers going to, and returning from, the deserts of Iraq.
Herbert Reed is an imposing man, broad shouldered and tall. He strides into the VA Medical Center in the Bronx with the presence of a cop or a soldier. Since the Vietnam War, he has been both.
His hair is perfect, his shirt spotless, his jeans sharply creased. But there is something wrong, a niggling imperfection made more noticeable by a bearing so disciplined. It is a limp -- more like a hitch in his get-along.
It is the only sign, albeit a tiny one, that he is extremely sick.
Even sleep offers no release. He dreams of gunfire and bombs and soldiers who scream for help. No matter how hard he tries, he never gets there in time.
At 54, he is a veteran of two wars and a 20-year veteran of the New York Police Department, where he last served as an assistant warden at the Riker's Island prison.
He was in perfect health, he says, before being deployed to Iraq.
According to military guidelines, he should have heard the words depleted uranium long before he ended up at Walter Reed. He should have been trained about its dangers, and how to avoid prolonged exposure to its toxicity and radioactivity. He says he didn't get anything of the kind. Neither did other reservists and National Guard soldiers called up for the current war, according to veterans' groups.
Reed and the seven brothers from his unit hate what has happened to them, and they speak of it at public seminars and in politicians' offices. It is something no VA doctor can explain; something that leaves them feeling like so many spent shell rounds, kicked to the side of battle.
But for every outspoken soldier like them, there are silent veterans like Raphael Naboa, an Army artillery scout who served 11 months in the northern Sunni Triangle, only to come home and fall apart.
Some days he feels fine. "Some days I can't get out of bed," he said from his home in Colorado.
Now 29, he's had growths removed from his brain. He has suffered a small stroke -- one morning he was shaving, having put down the razor to rinse his face. In that moment, he blacked out and pitched over.
"Just as quickly as I lost consciousness, I regained it," he said. "Except I couldn't move the right side of my body."
After about 15 minutes, the paralysis ebbed.
He has mentioned depleted uranium to his VA doctors, who say he suffers from a series of "non-related conditions." He knows he was exposed to DU.
"A lot of guys went trophy-hunting, grabbing bayonets, helmets, stuff that was in the vehicles that were destroyed by depleted uranium. My guys were rooting around in it. I was trying to get them out of the vehicles."
No one in the military talked to him about depleted uranium, he said. His knowledge, like Reed's, is self-taught from the Internet.
Unlike Reed, he has not gone to war over it. He doesn't feel up to the fight. There is no known cure for what ails him, and so no possible victory in battle.
He'd really just like to feel normal again. And he knows of others who feel the same.
"I was an artillery scout, these are folks who are in pretty good shape. Your Rangers, your Special Forces guys, they're in as good as shape as a professional athlete.
"Then we come back and we're all sick."
They feel like men who once were warriors and now are old before their time, with no hope for relief from a multitude of miseries that has no name.