Gulf War Legacy

Thomas P. Healy

Maj. Doug Rokke is hot.” No, he’s not sweating. Nor is his physique the object of admiration. He’s hot” because his body is contaminated by uranium — specifically, depleted uranium” (DU), which was widely used in munitions during the Gulf War as well as in Bosnia. DU is also expected to be deployed in the event of military action in Iraq. 

I was excreting over 1,200 micrograms a day, and [the U.S. Army] never even told me for two and a half years,” Rokke says. According to Army regulations, any uranium excretion over 250 micrograms a day warrants immediate medical care. 

Rokke is a Vietnam and Gulf War combat veteran who has specialized in hazardous materials and emergency medicine for more than 20 years. During Operation Desert Storm, he was part of a team that established decontamination procedures and facilities for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Later, he was given the mandate to clean up depleted uranium contamination in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. 

But the exposure came at great cost. DU — or more specifically, the radioactive isotope uranium 238 — is a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process used to create reactor fuel and bombs. It was first used in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. In the Gulf War, Rokke says, it was widely used for its effectiveness in penetrating armor and strengthening armor against penetration. 

Since then, more than 100,000 Gulf War veterans have reported unexplained illness, in a phenomenon sometimes known as Gulf War Syndrome. DU is a highly toxic heavy metal, and some studies have linked exposure to increased rates of cancer and birth defects. 

We have willfully spread it all over the place,” Rokke says. We’ve refused to clean up the mess; we’ve refused to provide medical care; not only to the American friendly fire’ casualties who survived, but also to the DU cleanup teams; and we’ve refused to supply medical care to all the thousands and thousands of other people, including women and children — which makes it an indiscriminate weapon.” 

Indiscriminate weapons are banned by international law. The United Nations has issued several calls for a ban on DU, which the United States has rejected. When you leave all the contamination there,” Rokke says of the Gulf War, people are going to continue to get sick from just the uranium munitions alone — much less all of the millions of rounds of [unused] uranium 238 that we just left there.” 

Scientific studies on DU downplay hazards, and the military denies it has any harmful effects at all. In 1999, the Department of Defense hired the Rand Corporation to review the existing medical literature surrounding the effects of DU. Though it said more studies were needed, Rand reported that U.S. troops were unlikely to suffer ill effects from exposure to DU during their Gulf War tours. 

But Rokke is convinced the Army is aware of the dangers of DU exposure. A March, 1991 memo from New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory notes concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment.” The memo warns that without support for DU, we stand to lose a valuable combat capability.” 

In 1992, Rokke co-authored a theater cleanup plan” outlining the hazards of DU and making recommendations for remediation of the estimated 315 tons of DU fired during the Gulf War. The plan went up through the military chain of command and was given to the Secretary of State and sent over to the emirate of Kuwait,” he says. He’s still waiting for the cleanup to start. It’s just not been done.” 

The army knows it’s a problem, and they just don’t care,” Rokke says. They’re going to use DU. You have to understand that. The purpose is to kill. When you go to war, you use the best weapon you have, and you will not ever give it up.” 

Based in part on the DU assessment reports Rokke and his team filed after the Gulf War, the Defense Department released a directive on August 14, 1993, to: 1. Provide adequate training for personnel who may come in contact with depleted uranium equipment. 2. Complete medical testing of personnel exposed to DU contamination during the Persian Gulf War. 3 Develop a plan for DU contaminated equipment recovery during future operations.” 

Rokke says none of this has been done either. He just wishes the military would acknowledge the consequences of its actions. He’s in good company. Both the Military Toxics Project and the National Gulf War Resource Center are calling for the United States to exercise leadership and ban DU. International concerns are also growing, since England, China and 12 other nations have arsenals of depleted uranium. A 17-member international team of scientists working with the U.N. Environmental Program is currently examining the effects of DU in Bosnia. The commission is expected to issue a report in March. 

For the past decade, Rokke has taken his message, both independently and as an Army officer, to veterans’ groups, peace organizations and even Capitol Hill. His message is blunt: I learned that real effective cleanup of this stuff is impossible. We need to ban DU.”

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Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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