Soldiers now fighting in Iraq are being exposed to battlefield hazards that have been associated with the Gulf War Syndrome that afflicts a quarter-million veterans of the 1991 war, said a former Central Command Army officer in Operation Desert Storm. Part of the threat today includes greater exposure to battlefield byproducts of depleted uranium munitions used in combat, said the former officer and other Desert Storm veterans trained in battlefield health and safety.
Their concern comes as troops are engaged in the most intensive fighting of the Iraq War. Complicating efforts to understand any potential health impacts is the Pentagon's failure, acknowleged in House hearings on March 25, to follow a 1997 law requiring baseline medical screening of troops before and after deployment.
"People are sick over there already," said Dr. Doug Rokke, former director of the Army's depleted uranium (DU)project. "It's not just uranium. You've got all the complex organics and inorganics [compounds] that are released in those fires and detonations. And they're sucking this in.... You've got the whole toxic wasteland."
In 1991, Desert Storm Commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf asked Rokke to oversee the environmental clean up and medical care of soldiers injured in friendly fire incidents involving DU weapons. Rokke later wrote the DU safety rules adopted by the Army, but was relieved of subsequent duties after he criticized commanders for not following those rules and not treating exposed troops from NATO's war in Yugoslavia.
Rokke said 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.
"That's why people started getting sick right away, when they started going in months ago with respiratory, diarrhea and rashes -- horrible skin conditions," Rokke said. "That's coming back on and they have been treating them at various medical facilities. And one of the doctors at one of the major Army medical facilities -- he and I talk almost every day -- and he is madder than hell."