My Life Living With Depleted Uranium
9 August 2005
My Life Living With Depleted
On June 12th 1987, I was a junior in High School with a mindset of having a military career, when Ronald Reagan gave a speech at the Reichstag Gate of the Berlin Wall. The speech was delivered to the people of West Berlin but it was made audible on the East side of the Berlin Wall as well. There were 2,073 words in his speech but the only words anyone ever remembers are these 16 words, with special emphasis on the last 6, when the former Hollywood Cowboy boldly said, "Come here to this gate!! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!! Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this Wall!!!"
Being older and wiser, I now view those words, which many still believe brought freedom to the world and united the two European theatres, East and West, while also ending the Cold War, as simply being the Best Acting Performance of Ronald Reagan's career.
Although he was not President by the time the wall was finally torn down, he is considered a hero for saying the words that brought a wall down and caused the entire world to descend in to various small hot wars which continue to this day.
On November 9th, 1989, I was a Pvt/E-2 who had a total of 7 months and 5 days in the Army. I was newly stationed at Ft. Bragg, NC and was watching the news when it flashed that East Germany, for the first time in more than 28 years, had opened its borders to the West including the Berlin wall. People crossed freely and the fireworks were incredible and it seemed that America was now, for certain, number One.
People scaled parts of the wall and chipped pieces of the wall away. A few people I knew who had been stationed in Germany at the time were able to bring back small pieces of the wall, or little vials of dust that presumably had been part of the wall. I remember being amazed when these people would show me these trophies of America's Cold War "victory" and who really believed that history was being made for the better.
Since then--never again will I be, nor have I been that naïve. I will never again be inspired by so few words either; but instead I will listen closely. Because the fall of the Berlin wall did not bring stability--It brought chaos! And the Dust from the Berlin Wall was just a premonition of the "other" Dust that was soon to come and destroy many lives.
In October 1995, I was at Ft. Bragg, not quite a year back from a short but intense deployment in Haiti as a UN Peacekeeper; I had also been in the First Gulf War I. After Haiti, I was beginning to lose my taste for the military. Haiti was truly terrifying and brutal; without regard to any racial or religious or ethnic differences, people simply killed one another. The poverty alone which I had witnessed, still gives me nightmares. Haitian Women, holding their heads high and not at all embarrassed, would sell these little cakes in the streets of Port-Au-Prince during the day. They proudly would eat these cakes as well. Yet, the cakes were not cakes, they were cakes of clay and mud mixed together.
As an anthropology student, I later found out this is a common practice among women in impoverished nations because the rich iron in the clay prevents them from being totally malnourished. I bought cakes any time I saw these women simply because I could not walk passed them without doing so.
I did not eat them, but I bought as many as the Haitian women had because they were proud and not ashamed. I was ashamed to be there as a peacekeeper and being able to do nothing about this. Today, Haiti has again descended into chaos, and things are worse than ever. I knew in October 1994 when I went there that nothing would change and we would simply be a trophy force so the UN and the USA could feel good and say on the evening news that they were bringing stability to the tiny, island nation in our Hemisphere, and the poorest in the world.
I was still having nightmares of Haiti when I found out in October 1995 that I would be deploying to the "former" Yugoslavia in December with a coalition of NATO soldiers to provide "security and relief" for refugees; mostly those who were predominantly Muslim and fleeing Kosovo, which was now a disputed territory of the former quiet and beautiful, and united, Yugoslavia.
The Berlin Wall had only been the beginning. During pre-deployment briefings we were told that there were just small, ethnic skirmishes going on and that our "mission" was Peaceful, as what we would be doing was more like aiding the overwhelmed humanitarian relief agencies in the area. There was little more information in those pre-deployment briefings. Having gone through Haiti and the previous conflict in the Persian Gulf, I knew this was not going to be the quiet little European deployment I so badly needed.
I was there one day, and that day was the day after our arrival in Sarajevo, the former capital of Yugoslavia, December 15, 1995, and I knew that things were going to be pretty horrible. We had arrived at night on the 14th and though we heard a few potshots here and there; we were reassured that the siege of Sarajevo had ended in September after being carpet bombed by NATO Fighters for nearly a month straight several times a day. The city was in ruins. There was no infrastructure to support electricity. There were no potable water sources. It was totally destroyed. I noticed a familiar black dust clinging to everything. It was already in my clothing and I had only been there one day.
Then I had a serious case of Persian Gulf related deja vous. This was the same dust no one could escape once we had arrived in Kuwait and after coalition fighters had strafed and annihilated the Iraqi Republican Guard retreating from Kuwait in defeat. It was distasteful and it would get in your food and your clothing and I never got clean of it until I returned to the states after that conflict. At least I thought a simple shower would take care of it. No one knew what it was, or thought to ask. We just knew it was irritating, especially to those of us who were, like myself, mechanics and working with recovery crews to clean up Kuwait city and the blasted armor of the former grand Iraqi Republican Guard strewn along Highway One leading out of Kuwait and into Southern Iraq. Some of us know it as the "Highway of Death".
At the time, we just thought the reference of death was to the Iraqi's who had died there. We had no idea we were being exposed to a toxic dust that would kill some of us, cause some of us to lose children by miscarriages or severe birth defects, or terrify those of us who saw this happening from ever having children or even getting married for fear of what we saw some of our fellow vets dealing with.
My Motor Sergeant in Iraq was a tall strapping man who was in awesome shape. Not an ounce of fat and he was a rock. Within 3 years of returning from Desert Storm he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and another three months after that he was dead. It took the military doctors nearly 2 years to figure out that he was not just suffering from lingering flu before they decided to do further tests and discovered the cancer. But by then it had spread to the Lymph System and from their cancer works quick.
Yet, none of us knew what was happening. There was talk of a "syndrome", a Gulf War syndrome, and we were always told by military medical personnel that this was just a myth. Then some thought it was due to breathing the toxic fumes in the areas of the Kuwaiti Oil fields that had been set on fire by the retreating Iraqi's. But nobody really knew, and no one with any expertise was making any haste to figure out why all this was happening.
Then in June 1994 there was a summary report to congress called "Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use by the US Army." prepared by the US Army Environmental Policy Institute. Just like Reagan's Berlin wall Speech and the little vials of Berlin Wall Dust, this report was propaganda ad only written to tell us that they were no hazards to us. However, we never received our own copies of the report. We were just briefed on the "key points" that the use of Depleted Uranium was nothing for us to worry about. Most of us were in shock that we were even using or being exposed to anything like Uranium. None of us had ever been told that we were handling Depleted Uranium ammunition or that when our jets blew up tanks that units like mine had to go and clear and recover, the dust was the residual Depleted Uranium from the bombs used to kill.
In case you do not know what DU is either, as we did not at first, Depleted Uranium is a by-product of fuel and weapons grade uranium refining. Depleted Uranium retains ALL of natural uranium's toxicological properties and according to the report which I only finally got a complete copy of through researching, DU retains about half the radiological properties.
As such, according to the report named above, the one declaring that this same DU was at best a minimal threat to those exposed to it, Depleted Uranium is treated as a Low Level Radioactive waste (LLRW) and is in the lowest class of LLRW hazardous waste. Yet the problem arises when you look at unbiased sources and you find out that Depleted Uranium has a half life of 4.5 BILLION YEARS.
This stuff once ingested in dust form or as was the case in some of the Gulf Conflicts friendly fire incidents, some troops had fragments in them and they were not removed since they posed no threat. By now the toxic nature of the DU has spread beyond just the fragment and entered the blood stream, the cellular structure and various other systems of the body; so, taking out the fragments would be useless.
I spent nearly 3 months cleaning up DU contaminated equipment in Kuwait. Then, I spent nearly 2 years, with one year off back at Ft. Bragg, before going back for another year and 2 month tour, cleaning up the same type of destruction covered with the same type of dust in Sarajevo, and at short times just being exposed to it while doing border "management", in other words forcing wary and exhausted Kosovar Muslims to get up and move again to another "safe zone" so our jets could bomb targets in that particular area on that given day.
Our smart bombs also failed to be so smart, when, in April 1999, NATO jets "mistakenly" bombed a convoy of Kosovar refugees near Djakovica. Less than a month later NATO accidentally bombs the Chinese Embassy and three Chinese journalists are killed. That was no fun clean up. Luckily I left and redeployed back to Bragg soon after that. I received orders to PCS to Hawaii soon after and I thought I was finally going to get away and get healthy. Until I learned the stuff about the half life and saw soldiers who had by 2001 when I got here, been gone from the Gulf for ten years and they were having symptoms such as multiple miscarriages, contracting cancers that were highly unusual in such a short period of time, suffering from general fatigue and just feeling plane sick most days.
I got out of the army after two years at Schofield Barracks and I began looking for more information. I was suddenly jolted when I found two old articles in the Stars and Stripes, European Edition each with headlines that caught my eye and sent me to panic. In the first article, which I had missed, but was published in the January 15th 2001 edition of Stars and Stripes and luckily archived, the article title was "Depleted Uranium Issue Goes Way Beyond Statistics" and it was written by Ward Sanderson. He exposed that International troops still in the Balkans were dying from alarming rates of leukemia. He told about too many children in Iraq being born with alarming birth defects. Yet all the talking heads and the fact that the article was in the Stars and Stripes would never conclusively say the problem was because of DU weapons used and residual Dust exposure.
Then the second article caught my eye. It was published in the November 14th 2002 edition and it told how a United Nations Environmental Program team had discovered three radioactive sites in Bosnia. The first place that caught my eye was the name of a city just outside of Sarajevo, named Hadzici. That had been a former tank and ammunition storage facility which we had frequently used to dump destroyed equipment which had been bombed by DU Ammunition used by NATO jets.
I used to work on a recovery team driving forklifts and 5-ton wreckers as we worked to clear the streets of Sarajevo of debris. I took many destroyed military vehicles and other types of destroyed equipment, all of it thickly covered with DU Dust to that facility. The UN Team found it to be a radioactive "hot spot" with many DU fragments in the area. I have not read anything beyond that out of sheer terror.
I am a 33 year old female, supposedly healthy, and I am terrified to get married because I am terrified of having children. I feel like my life has been lived already and taken away first by a wall which fell and caused the world to fragment and murder each other, predicted when I had that funny feeling holding vials of dust from that wall, and then now living with all the memories of eating tainted food, breathing the dust, and drinking it in the water. Simple memories of seeing it on other things still bother me a great deal because I know these areas are now being used by civilians and I do not think decontamination has even begun yet.
I don't know what type of life Ronald Reagan really believed he was securing for us when he spoke those almost sanctified words people still find as being "Great" in some way, but I know he did not secure much of a life for me beyond maybe marrying, hoping everyday that any lump I find or any flu symptom I have, and I have more than most, is not something that is just beginning, while hoping that this neurotic worry does not prevent me from possibly adopting children, or getting ill and not being eligible to adopt.
Thanks a lot Mr. Reagan for using your acting talent to tear down a wall, and start the world to turn rabidly upon itself. Things have really been great, although you probably were not aware at all of the damage you caused anyway during the last days of your own life. I guess karma can be a bit feisty when it decides to be.
I just hope that some of the good I did in my deployments will help me escape any bad karma for being a part of such an evil unfolding of this current devastated and war torn world. I was tested twice in the last two years for exposure and both times was told I had reached my lifetime limit. So, I have to live with that knowledge every minute of the day. I will die before this evil element in my body will ever even begin to decay.
So, any time I see dust on my furniture or anywhere, I am reminded of what I know now lives in me, and I am scared. Maybe that is how karma is going to deal with me.