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By Shirley Wentworth
When Bush I began deploying more than a half-million soldiers to the Gulf region in 1990, Bill Bires and Marvin Simmons mobilized.
Northwest Veterans for Peace was born.
Because of their combined experiences in the military, they knew war was inevitable. They knew a procession of body bags and sick and wounded soldiers would begin.
They also knew what to expect.
They worked with the first round of Gulf vets, now they’re working with the second.
Bires, a Korean vet exposed to nuclear testing, and Simmons, a Vietnam vet exposed to Agent Orange, had already been ground through the system. They knew returning veterans were unlikely to receive much more help than they did.
It wasn’t long before the calls came in. Returned veterans complained mostly about joint and muscle pain, fatigue and sleeping problems in the beginning. In the years to come, the complaints grew to include a long list of problems including genetic mutation, high miscarriage rates, cancer, lung and kidney damage, neurological disorders, infections, gastrointestinal illnesses, liver dysfunction and skin conditions.
True to form, the U.S. military denied responsibility.
Gulf War I was the first war where weapons containing depleted uranium were employed. "Depleted uranium" is a radioactive by-product of nuclear research and development. Depleted uranium sounds innocuous enough.
With the U. S. military history of deception and evasion, it’s only logical to assume the terminology was a deliberate choice.
Soldiers and citizens alike generally find out the hard way about the lingering and degenerative effects of chemical warfare.
As the complaints multiplied, Northwest Veterans for Peace organized the first and only Gulf War Syndrome conference on the West Coast, a conference that drew the attention of Senator Donald Riegle (D-Mich.) who offered to help get testing for veterans in motion.
The Legacy of Depleted Uranium (DU)
Numerous Iraqi children have been born with deformities due to the DU the U.S. left behind. Photos and videos illustrating what has been termed a cultural and genetic genocide. are available from several groups engaged in trying to ban the use of DU in warfare.
When the test results came back from a California lab, they showed compromised immune systems in all subjects — servicemen and servicewomen, their spouses and children. A 1995 follow-up showed that not only were all the original test subjects still sick, but also that their children experienced slower motor functions, stunted growth and increased susceptibility to asthma.
While the first Gulf War took the lives of “only” 148 troops, another11,000 have died since then and more than half who were deployed for the war on disability.
Gulf War II is already spitting out its veterans.
Gerald Matthew, who came home in 2003, was among a small group of National Guardsmen given testing for depleted uranium — not by the Veterans Administration, but by the New York Daily News. Of the nine who were tested, Matthew’s test showed the highest contamination levels. His now 13-month-old daughter was born with three digits missing from her right hand.
Depleted uranium leaves more than bullet holes and rubble. Its chemical toxicity disperses into microscopic particles, infiltrates and hangs in the atmosphere, and travels on the wind. Once inhaled, it tracks a complex physiological path through through the body, leaving permanently metastasising radioactive damage. Shelf life: 4.5 billion years.
After two wars, DU is littered all over Iraq like soda cans and plastic wrappers on a beach. Some 300 tons of DU was strewn across the country during the first desert war. That was followed up with more than 1,000 tons levelled across Afghanistan and another 3,000-plus tons pummelled across Iraq. Nor did the Balkans escape during U.S. intervention in Bosnia. More than enough to destroy any American dream for any number of veterans shipwrecked on the shoals of DU even on the so-called safety of American shores.
Despite full knowledge of the lethal effects of DU, the U.S. military won’t abandon it. Its ability to penetrate concrete and steel outweighs its consequences on human life — and it is cheap. It’s a convenient way to avoid the cost of nuclear waste disposal.
Although a growing number of international scientists, lawyers and even military types consider the use of DU a war crime against humanity, real politik trumps. The lone superpower status the U.S. wields makes it nearly impossible for international groups such as the United Nations or the World Health Organization to challenge U.S. policy.
That means local activists must take up the challenge.
Louisiana and Connecticut have taken the lead to pass laws that provide all returning troops with DU tests. Northwest Veterans for Peace is taking on that challenge in Oregon.
It’s a baby step toward accountability, but it’s a critical one.
“(The military) uses any kind of excuse to disregard you,” said Bires. “They’ve done everything they can to void paying.”
At about $1,000 per test, the DU exam doesn’t come cheap. There are three types of uranium: natural, enriched and depleted - each with its own isotope. All are lethal. Zeroing in on the correct uranium isotope is critical because health care compensation depends on accurately identifying the DU isotope.
Although a broad collection of information about DU is available, the American public remains largely ignorant.
“It’s incredible how little people know,” Bires said, adding that the major thrust of the legislative campaign is to get the issue into greater public awareness so individuals can pressure their legislators. “A lot of us thought the American public wouldn’t put up with another war after the Vietnam disillusionment.
Then came Gulf War I and another succession of military engagements.
And the same lie.
And the same bitter knowledge.
As Simmons noted, back in 1990, Northwest Veterans for Peace knew the government would be of little use to the new bunch of ailing veterans, and that the group would have to take it upon itself to help find support and care for returning troops - even though it would come down to private fundraising and using money obtained from successful lawsuits.
It’s kind of a kick in the pants considering that presidents and administration officials routinely fall back on the call for sacrifice - even as they pointedly pursue agendas filled with manifest destiny exuberance - yet can’t muster support remotely comparable to the sacrifices called for. The call to support the troops falls flat when government officials can’t put their money where their mouth is to provide adequate equipment on the battlefield or medical care when health and bodies are ruined.
Since its inception in 1990, the veterans’ peace group work has included going into schools to give students the reality of the military recruitment pitch which routinely promises the excitement of seeing the world followed by a paid college education. The pitch omits the whoppers presidential administrations use to justify war and its broken promises to its troops.
And Simmons is thinking about those already back from Iraq as well as those to come.
“They’re figuring out now they were lied to,” he said. “They’re figuring out they participated in death and destruction based on lies - and that will add to the post-traumatic stress that sets in.”
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Last Updated: Saturday, October 8, 2015 (previous edit October 6, 2005)