The Pentagon's Radioactive Bullet
The Gulf War Test
The U.S. Army began introducing D.U. ammo into its stockpiles in 1978, when the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in intense competition over which side would develop the most effective tank. Washington feared that the Soviets with their T-72 had jumped ahead in the development of armor that was nearly impenetrable by traditional weapons. It was thought that D.U. rounds could counter the improved Soviet armor. But not until Iraq's Soviet-supplied army invaded oil-rich Kuwait and President Bush sent an expeditionary force of 500,000 to dislodge it was there a chance to battle-test the D.U. rounds.
American M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers fired D.U. rounds; the A-10 Warthog aircraft, which provided close support for combat troops, fired twin 30-millimeter guns with small-caliber D.U. bullets. All told, in the 100 hours of the February ground war, U.S. tanks fired at least 14,000 large-caliber D.U. rounds, and U.S. planes some 940,000 smaller-caliber rounds. D.U. rounds left about 1,400 Iraqi tanks smoldering in the desert. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf recalled one commander saying his unit "went through a whole field of burning Iraqi tanks."
The D.U. weapons succeeded beyond the Pentagon's wildest dreams. But they received little public attention compared with the fanfare over other high-tech weapons: smart bombs, stealth fighters and Patriot missiles (which looked good, even if they didn't, as it turned out, work). D.U., perhaps the most effective new weapon of them all, was mentioned only in passing. "People have a fear of radioactivity and radioactive materials," explained Dan Fahey, a former Navy officer who served in the gulf. "The Army seems to think that if they are going to keep using D.U., the less they tell people about it the better."
As the U.S.-led coalition forces swept to victory, many celebrating G.I.s scrambled onto--or into--disabled Iraqi vehicles. "When you get a lot of soldiers out on a battlefield, they are going to be curious," observed Chris Kornkven, a staff sergeant with the 304th Combat Support Company. "The Gulf War was the first time we saw Soviet tanks. Many of us started climbing around these destroyed vehicles." Indeed, a study by the Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm Association found that out of 10,051 Gulf War veterans who have reported mysterious illnesses, 82 percent had entered captured enemy vehicles.
Other soldiers might have been exposed to harmful levels of D.U. as they rescued comrades from vehicles hit by friendly fire. A Gulf War photo book, Triumph in the Desert, contains one dramatic picture of soldiers pulling wounded Americans from the burning hull of an Abrams tank that had been hit by a D.U. round. Black smoke from the depleted-uranium explosion billows around the rescuers. Still other G.I.s picked up fragments of large-caliber D.U. rounds or unexploded small rounds and wore them as jewelry, hung around the soldiers' necks. "We didn't know any better," said Kornkven. "We didn't find out until long after we were home that there even was such a thing as D.U."
But the Americans facing perhaps the greatest risk from D.U. were those who had been hit by D.U. shrapnel, especially those still carrying radioactive fragments in their bodies. Robert Sanders, who drove a tank, was one apparent casualty. On the third day of the ground war, his tank was hit by a D.U. round fired from another U.S. tank. "I had stinging pain in my shoulder and a stinging pain in my face from shrapnel," Sanders said.
Military doctors removed the shrapnel. Several years later, however, Sanders heard that D.U. was radioactive and toxic, so he obtained his medical records. He found an interdepartmental fax saying doctors had removed bits of an "unknown metal" from his shoulder and that it was "probably D.U." Four years after he was wounded, Sanders took a urine test for depleted uranium, which revealed high levels of it in his system. The Pentagon had never made an effort to tell him of his likely exposure.
Even the end of the ground war on February 28, 1991, did not end the threat of exposure to U.S. soldiers. Government documents reveal that in one accident alone, at a camp at Doha, about twelve miles from Kuwait City, as many as 660 rounds weighing 7,062 pounds burned, releasing dark clouds of D.U. particles. Many of the 3,000 U.S. troops stationed at the base participated in cleanup operations without protective gear and without knowledge of the potential dangers.