Written by David K. Winnett Jr.
The tools of modern warfare are vastly more effective now than in previous wars. They are more precise and infinitely more lethal, and some pose great risk to those who employ them. Case in point is depleted uranium - or DU.
DU is a byproduct of enriched uranium, a highly radioactive substance. Since 1991, the United States has used DU in the manufacture of protective armor plating for tanks and armored combat vehicles, as well as heavy armor-piercing ammunition. We not only shield our combat vehicles with DU, we also fire DU-coated ammunition at enemy vehicles, with quite deadly effect.
Since the use of DU began, a heated debate has continued over the long-term health risks. Upon impact, DU is vaporized. The resulting microparticulate is distributed throughout very large areas of the battlefield. If ingested, there is a risk of kidney, liver, heart or brain damage. The Department of Defense's own studies have demonstrated genetic, reproductive and neurological damage in rodents exposed to DU. If ingested [or inhaled] , DU can remain in the human body for a lifetime, wreaking havoc on internal organs and the central nervous system.
DU was first used in combat during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Now, thousands of veterans of that war suffer from permanent, life-altering chronic illnesses. Is this mere coincidence? After the war, Veterans Affairs saw a huge increase in disability claims submitted by Gulf War veterans. Yet no one was able to identify a cause. Many veterans were deemed to be experiencing psychosomatic illness, the VA blaming the complaints on post-traumatic stress disorder. Most were told, "It's all in your head."
For 15 years I have lived with intermittent bouts of blurry vision, sore muscles often accompanied by uncontrolled twitching of major muscle groups, hand tremors and frequent bouts of extremely debilitating fatigue. I have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, neuro-myalgias and chronic fatigue. I have an unexplained scar on my right kidney and an enlarged liver, yet I am not overweight, have never been a smoker and my alcohol intake has always been moderate.
DU is not the only suspected cause of Gulf War illnesses. Other possibilities include exposures to low levels of sarin gas accidentally released into the atmosphere during the demolition of seized Iraqi ordnance, multiple vaccinations, non-FDA approved anti-nerve agent pills, smoke from burning oil wells and heavy use of pesticides. Regardless of the cause, let's use these experiences to reduce the chances of future battlefield exposures, and to work toward improving the quality of life for those permanently afflicted by battlefield hazards.
In 1994, a law authorized the VA to grant "presumption of service connection" for certain symptoms associated with the Gulf War. Qualifying symptoms for compensation include: fatigue, rashes, muscle pain, joint pain, neurological symptoms, respiratory symptoms, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal symptoms and cardiovascular symptoms. When these symptoms cannot be attributed to a known illness, they are to be considered "undiagnosed illnesses," and presumed to be the result of exposures in the war. [Editor's Note: Three "ill-defined" conditions are also presumptive for Gulf War veterans, including Fibromyalgia (up to 40%), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (up to 100%), and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (up to 30%)].
The law begins, "The Secretary may pay compensation ." The problem lies in the word "may." VA centers across the country are permitted to interpret the law as they see fit. They "may" award compensation, or they may not. The majority of Gulf War-related disability claims are denied. Approval rates also differ from one VA region to another.
Fewer than 4,000 of the 670,000 Americans who served in the Gulf War have been awarded the disability rating prescribed in the law. Yet the VA's own "Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illnesses" reported last year that one in four veterans are sick. Using VA's numbers, that's 167,500 sick veterans. Tens of thousands have been rated with post-traumatic stress disorder, yet less than 4,000 veterans, including myself, have been awarded the "undiagnosed" rating. [Editor's Note: VA's estimates are between 175,000 and 210,000 (25-34%) of the 696,842 veterans of the 1991 Gulf War have chronic multi-symptom illness (CMI) commonly known as Gulf War Illness or Gulf War Syndrome. The most current studies show that only about 10 percent of veterans of the 1991 Gulf War have PTSD, an extremely low rate when compared to earlier and later wars. Data release by VA last week shows that of more than 220,000 claims filed, just over 15,000 Gulf War veterans have been service-connected by VA for one or more unexplained or undiagnosed conditions.]
The ground war lasted 100 hours. The number of post-traumatic stress ratings far exceeds what would be expected for such short duration. Instead of being referred to neurology or the infectious diseases department in the VA, these veterans have been directed to psychiatry. Many more have given up hope that they will ever obtain assistance from the government that sent them to war. Some have taken their own lives.
Far too many have been unjustly denied medical and disability benefits. For that reason alone, the law should be amended. The word "may" should be changed to "shall." Those who served in the Persian Gulf War are heroes, one and all. This disenfranchisement of so many courageous American veterans must end immediately.
Regardless of the cause of Gulf War illnesses, Americans should demand that their elected representatives continue to provide annual funding for Gulf War illness research through the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, and to hold the secretary of Veterans Affairs accountable for fairly and consistently administering disability claims submitted by Persian Gulf War veterans.
A free nation has a moral obligation to ensure that its injured or ill veterans are made whole again to the fullest extent possible through a compassionate system of disability compensation and proper medical treatment, no matter the cost.
--David K. Winnett Jr. is a retired Marine Corps captain and the chairman of funding development for the National Gulf War Resource Center (www.NGWRC.org). He lives in Torrance, Calif..