Pentagon's uranium denial

The Pentagon says Jerry Wheat, a former tank driver with the 3rd Armored Division, is not sick from exposure to depleted uranium.Neither is Mark Zeller, who once loaded depleted uranium tank-busting shells onto Apache helicopters.

And Doug Rokke, a retired Army major who first assessed the dangers of depleted uranium after the Persian Gulf War, is scientifically off-base, the Pentagon says.

All three men proudly served their country in the Gulf War. All three came home with inexplicable illnesses.

Before going to the gulf, they had never heard of depleted uranium, a metal used to make shells that are capable of piercing even the strongest armor.

First used in the Gulf War, it is now commonly used in Iraq, and returning veterans from that conflict have tested positive for depleted uranium contamination.

Wheat says he experienced its awesome impact firsthand when his Bradley tank was hit twice by friendly fire.

"It blew off my helmet and knocked me into the front of the vehicle," Wheat said. "Afterward, my gear and clothes were covered with black dust."

The explosion also left several tiny pieces of shrapnel lodged in his head and body.

"No one told us we'd been hit with [depleted uranium] at the time," Wheat said. "I slept in my tank for a few nights. There was never any concern to scrub anything."

A few weeks later, Wheat was shipped to a base in Germany, where his wife and 3-month-old son were living.

Then his problems began - terrible headaches, severe abdominal and joint pains, respiratory problems and chronic fatigue. He couldn't keep food down, and his weight plummeted from 220 to 160 pounds. Discharged in November 1991, he returned home to Las Cruces, N.M., but couldn't hold a job.

The following year, his father arranged for testing of the shrapnel doctors had removed from his body. Only then did Wheat learn he'd been hit with a radioactive shell.

He fought for the Army to check him for depleted uranium contamination. Independent tests showed he had been exposed to depleted uranium, but Wheat said Army doctors tested him in 1993 only for natural uranium, and they informed him he was on the high end of normal.

Ever since then, Wheat has been part of an ongoing Army study of a small group of the thousands of Gulf War veterans who were exposed to depleted uranium.

Zeller served in the 229th helicopter battalion of the 101st Airborne Division. He spent time in southern Iraq in areas he believes were contaminated with radioactivity.

"My hair started falling out when I got back," Zeller said. "My tongue is always swollen, I have head and neck pains, all kinds of intestinal problems, and can't eat very much."

Zeller said he also suffers from short-term memory loss, and blood tests have revealed chromosome damage to his red cells.

Army doctors tell him he's suffering from chronic fatigue.

Zeller, who lives in Georgia, did not suffer physical wounds in the war, but he, too, has been admitted to the Army's depleted uranium monitoring program.

And there's Rokke. In March 1991, the Army sent him to Saudi Arabia to supervise cleanup of U.S. vehicles that had been struck and contaminated by depleted uranium shells.

Rokke found soldiers cleaning radioactive vehicles "in T-shirts and cutoff pants, with no protection," and sleeping next to potentially contaminated areas. He brought in proper gear, and cleaned up the tanks and trucks.

Despite all their precautions, Rokke said he and several members of his team became contaminated.

"We all got respiratory and kidney problems right away," Rokke said. He says Army officials did not tell him for two years of his high radiation levels. He claims crucial records disappeared.

"I honor the service he [Rokke] gave to the nation," said Michael Kilpatrick, deputy director of deployment health support at the Pentagon. But Kilpatrick says that Rokke has exaggerated his role in the Gulf War battle-damage assessment team.

"Rokke does create a great deal of fear and anxiety in people," Kilpatrick said. "Science doesn't bear out what he says."

As for the group of veterans the Army continued to study, Kilpatrick said, there have been no "clinically significant health effects," even for soldiers found to have high uranium levels in their body.

Originally published on April 27, 2004