Wednesday, June 20, 2007Written by JASON STEIN, Wisconsin State Journal :: LOCAL :: D1
Bill: Tell Vets About Health Risks -- Measure Would Require State Agency To Tell Veterans About The Possible Health Risks Of Depleted Uranium
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Former Army Reserve soldier Chris Kornkven never saw combat in the first Gulf War, but he believes he suffered an invisible wound.
Years after serving in Saudi Arabia in 1991, the 41-year-old former sergeant first class fights fatigue and joint pain. He carries a digital organizer to help him remember short-term facts he was able to remember with ease before the war. He believes his exposure to depleted uranium is at least partly to blame for his symptoms.
"It's a daily frustration dealing with them, particularly knowing how I had been prior to going into" the war, Kornkven said Kornkven, who lives in Helenville in Jefferson County, supports a bill before the state Senate that would require veterans to be given better information about the risks of the toxic, radioactive substance.
The bill is one of a pair of proposals designed to help veterans exposed to health risks understand those risks, watch out for health effects and seek treatment for any symptoms.The bill passed the Republican-controlled state Assembly by a unanimous vote last month and is now in the Senate, where veterans committee Chairman Sen. Jim Sullivan, D-Wauwatosa, supports it and has promised a hearing. Gov. Jim Doyle also supports the measure, spokesman Matt Canter said.
If passed, the bill would make Wisconsin one of a handful of states with similar legislation, according to its author, Rep. Tom Nelson, D-Kaukauna. Nelson said the proposal would help avoid long delays - like the ones that occurred after the Vietnam War - in notifying soldiers of health hazards.
"I don't want us to repeat the mistakes of the past and that's why I want (Wisconsin) to get ahead of the curve on this," Nelson said.
The second proposal is a budget provision that would create a list of the state's veterans to inform them of findings affecting their health.
Possible health risks A byproduct of refining uranium for nuclear power, depleted uranium is less radioactive than other uranium isotopes. Its high density makes it good for both tank armor and the shells used to pierce that armor. The possibility of health risks such as birth defects in soldiers' children from exposure to shrapnel or small particles of the metal has generated years of controversy.
A study by the University of Southern Maine released last month showed depleted uranium can damage DNA in human lung cells in cultures outside the body, raising cancer fears. But the study's author, John Pierce Wise, has said lung cancer can take decades to develop and it's too early to tell whether depleted uranium could cause lung cancer in soldiers who breathed in fine particles of the heavy metal created by a battlefield strike.
Military authorities have pointed to 2005 findings by the government-owned Sandia National Laboratories that only a few veterans accidentally hit by U.S. munitions have had exposures to depleted uranium high enough to put them at significant risk.
'Very clear message' The Nelson bill requires the state Department of Veterans Affairs to use its existing resources to provide veterans with information about the possible health effects of exposure to depleted uranium and how they can be tested.
The veterans department supports the bill because it sends "a very clear message" that notifying veterans is an important priority, said Anthony Hardie, executive assistant at the agency.
Hardie, a Gulf War veteran, said veterans of that conflict faced possible exposure to burning oil well fires, low levels of chemical warfare agents and experimental drugs and vaccines - "a veritable toxic soup."
The veterans department also wants to develop a list of the state's 469,000 veterans to inform them of findings affecting their health. That measure is in the budget bill recently sent to the Senate and has the support of Senate Majority Leader Judy Robson, D-Beloit.
Hardie, who was exposed to smoke from oil well fires and now has lung problems, said it can take time to discover health effects from battlefield agents such as the Agent Orange herbicide and defoliant used during the Vietnam War.
Depleted uranium gives troops an edge in battle but comes with possible risks troops and the public need to understand, Hardie said.
"If that's what we accomplish with all of this, then this bill will have done some good," he said.
Nausea and fatigue Kornkven said it wasn't until well after he returned from duty in north-central Saudi Arabia along the Iraq border that he learned of the possible dangers of depleted uranium. In April 1991, the former radio repairman toured a battlefield in Kuwait where he climbed on Iraqi tanks that had been hit by U.S. tank rounds and other munitions.
Within weeks of that tour, he began suffering from nausea and fatigue. When he returned to the states, his fatigue, joint pain and short-term memory problems persisted. Kornkven eventually tested positive for exposure to depleted uranium.
Kornkven said it has been difficult and frustrating trying to get help and answers from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.
"You kind of wonder how many other soldiers are continuing to be exposed to that stuff over there and aren't given any sort of follow-up testing for that," he said.
About the legislation
What: A pair of state legislative proposals would make it easier for returning troops to receive information about possible health risks like depleted uranium.
Pro: Supporters said the state should work to avoid past mistakes in failing to help veterans deal with the health risks of war.
Con: Critics have said the risks from materials like depleted uranium have not been proven.