April 13th, 20009. Defense Department
The ninth floor of an office complex in Falls Church, Virginia. A thick door opens, and I am ushered into an inner office where former Army General Dale Vesser is waiting for me. Having stepped down from his military position, General Vesser is now deputy special assistant in the Office of the Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense for Gulf War Illness (OSAGWI), an office established by the Pentagon in November 1996.
A response to criticism
"Thousands of Gulf War veterans are getting sick, and the Pentagon is doing nothing." Criticism like this from veterans and from members of Congress led to creation of the OSAGWI, which was mandated "to do an objective, thorough investigation of the medical situation."
Attending my interview with General Vesser were the director of Public Affairs, director of Outreach Programs, the director of Medical Outreach and Issues, and a Defense Department contractor. The atmosphere was extremely guarded and tense.
"People talk about oil well fires, DU (depleted uranium), PB (pyridostigmine bromide), low-level chemical agents, and vaccines against biological weapons, but at this point, we do not believe that any of the hazards to which the Gulf War veterans were exposed are directly related to their illnesses. The only one we cannot rule out is PB."
General Vesser spoke with surprising calm. When I asked the grounds for rejecting the influence of depleted uranium, he said, "Let me tell you about that." He leaned forward and continued.
"According to the Rand Corporation, to which we have commissioned this investigation, nothing in the scientific literature supports the idea that DU has any harmful effect whatsoever. The Baltimore Veterans Hospital is doing a health survey of soldiers who actually have DU fragments in their bodies from friendly fire. They do have elevated readings for uranium in their urine and other bodily fluids, but again, no connection to any illness has been discovered."
No danger foreseen
One of those soldiers at another veteran's hospital has had bone surgically removed from his left arm, and he believes he has bone cancer. When I mentioned this case, General Vesser said, "I've never heard of that one," and went on to explain, "Most veterans who claim they got cancer after the Gulf War got it from things they encountered long before that, not due to the influence of DU. Cancer has a latency period of ten to twenty-five years."
The Pentagon, however, had internal reports dating from before the Gulf War stating unequivocally that DU can damage lungs, kidneys, and other organs. Since this was known, why weren't the soldiers told about this danger?
General Vesser chose his words carefully. "This was the first time that DU munitions were ever used in significant quantities in actual combat. We weren't thinking much about the danger. It is unfortunate that soldiers were exposed to unnecessary radiation by getting into tanks that had been destroyed by DU projectiles. However, the amount of radiation they absorbed was not sufficient to have any impact on their health."
Clear intent to use again
In 1998, the Pentagon officially accepted the fact that soldiers who participated in the ground war were exposed to radiation. However, they still firmly deny any connection between that exposure and any illness. They also state clearly that DU munitions will be used in future wars.
"At this point, there is no scientific evidence indicating any detrimental impact of DU on human bodies. In fact, DU munitions have proved to be tremendously effective. DU shells are conventional weapons, not weapons of mass destruction like nuclear weapons. France and Russia are exporting them, and doing so involves no violation of international law. DU munitions will definitely be used in the future, as they were in Kosovo."
General Vesser assured me, "We still have an open mind regarding the causes of the illnesses the veterans are suffering, and we will continue our research." But I couldn't shake the feeling that those words derived from the "Don't look, don't find" policy of which the veterans complain.
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