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Gulf War Syndrome and the Army's Depleted Uranium Training Videos

A decade on and no one knows for certain what the awful, persistent sickness was that followed home the veterans of our last major combat operation.

As America prepares for the end of the war and the creation of thousands of veterans, another mystery lingers in the background: a decade on and no one knows for certain what the awful, persistent sickness was that followed home the veterans of our last major combat operation. It’s doubtful that there will ever be any strict consensus as to the root causes of Gulf War Syndrome, as it’s ominously called, especially considering the catalog of chemicals Gulf War vets were exposed to: nerve gas antidote pills, military strength pesticides, and chemical weapons.


But another culprit, depleted uranium, a byproduct of enriched uranium that was used in American munitions, was the focus of military preparations before the war. We dug up some old Army videos for “Depleted Uranium General Awareness Training” that shows just how under-prepared soldiers may have been to the hazards of this potentially pretty nasty stuff.

What is depleted uranium? It’s been used by America’s military in making projectiles for everything from rotary cannons for airplanes to tank guns. Alloys made with DU offer a number of attractive qualities for projectile makers: it’s denser than lead, shatters into armor-piercing flaming-hot shards on impact, and tends to explode and/or light things on fire. It makes for more effective weapons, which theoretically would save lives on the battlefield.

Unfortunately, the low-level radioactivity of DU—it’s considered “depleted” because it has a lower percentage of the more radioactive uranium isotopes, the opposite of enriched uranium used in bomb-making—was a constant presence for troops handling ordinance deemed more or less safe. That radiation is an oft-cited cause of Gulf War Syndrome, a condition that affected (and in many cases, continues to affect) around 250,000 of the 697,000 vets who served in the first Gulf War. Symptoms include fatigue, musculoskeletal pain, cognitive problems, skin rashes and diarrhea.

In a pamphlet for veterans afflicted with Gulf War Syndrome, the Support Network for an Armed Forces Union wrote that the Pentagon used at least 300 tons of DU during the first Gulf War, while estimates figure at least 1,700 tons in the the latest war in Iraq. According to Dr. Doug Rokke, former director of the Army’s DU project, "today’s troops have been fighting on land polluted with chemical, biological and radioactive weapon residue from the first Gulf War and its aftermath. In this setting, troops have been exposed not only to sandstorms, which degrade the lungs, but to oil fires and waste created by the use of uranium projectiles in tanks, aircraft, machine guns and missiles.


Depleted uranium is extremely volatile. It is autopyrophoric, which means it can spontaneously combust at room temperature in the presence of water and oxygen. At higher temperatures, like that of an explosion or friction from piercing armor, it will explode, releasing radioactive aerosol particles. According to Dr. Rosalie Bertell, in a report for the Hauge Peace Conference of May 1999, “There is no dispute of the fact that at least 320 tons of depleted uranium (DU) was ‘lost’ in the Gulf war, and that much of that was converted at high temperature into an aerosol, that is, minute insoluble particles of uranium oxide, UO2 or UO3 , in a mist or fog.”

Because the DU exploded into aerosol forms, it would have been impossible for troops to know if they’d been actually been exposed to DU particles or not. Even if they had a reasonable suspicion to know how or when they’d been exposed, it would have been even harder to quantify how severe the exposure was.

Yet, despite DU’s widespread use in the first Gulf War, doctors and military health programs were underprepared for helping troops who’d been inhaling radioactive heavy metal during the course of war operations. An exhaustive report on environmental exposure to DU in the Gulf War, organized by Bernard Rostker, Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses at the Department of Defense, highlights this fact:

In hindsight, it is clear that medical care-givers required instruction and training on DU’s military use and its implications in treating casualties . In 1990, most combat life-savers, medics, medical care-givers, and clinicians knew little or nothing about DU and therefore rarely recognized, documented, and evaluated DU casualties. The military health service system had not specifically developed or disseminated protocols to guide the appropriate care-givers in processing and treating casualties with embedded DU fragments or DU-contaminated wounds.


To the chagrin of various veteran’s groups and doctors like Rokke and Bertell, that report eventually concluded that most troops in the Gulf War were not exposed to enough DU to explain away Gulf War Syndrome. A 2008 study by AC Marshall concluded much the same thing, stating “Veterans and civilians who did not occupy DU-contaminated vehicles are unlikely to have internalized quantities of DU significantly in excess of normal internalization of natural uranium from the environment.” Marshall does not, however, discount that DU likely caused numerous health problems for a small number of Gulf War veterans who had more direct DU exposure.

For veterans suffering from Gulf War Syndrome, that admission is a minor victory. But even as Gulf War Syndrome continues to be alternately debated, diagnosed and ignored, it’s worthwhile remembering what the impact may be of the hundreds of tons of depleted uranium we left behind.

In 2001, the Basra hospital in southern Iraq reported an increase in the incidence of child leukemia and genetic malformation among babies born in the decade following the Gulf War, mutations doctors there attributed to DU. In 2004, Iraq had the highest mortality rate due to leukemia of any country (pdf). But a 2009 report (pdf) prepared for the Department of Defense by the Rand Institute that looked at the research into the effects of depleted uranium found no conclusive health risk, but called for “further… long-term studies” as the use of DU munitions and armor is likely to expand greatly over the coming years, both in the U.S. military and in other countries."