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Opinion: Democracy and depleted uranium

Soldiers, like my sister, return from Iraq gripped by cancer. The US military says cancer isn't a war wound.

An Iraqi man recovers metal parts from an anti-aircraft gun in a wreckage dump on the outskirts of Baghdad, May 25, 2003. Iraqi armored vehicles lie at a wreckage dump on the outskirts of Baghdad, May 25, 2003. The vehicles brought here were destroyed when U.S.-led strikes used depleted uranium shells against tanks and other armored vehicles. (Jamal Saidi/Reuters)

NEW YORK — When my sister, 101st Airborne Army Capt. Chaplain Fran E. Stuart, returned from Iraq, she was forever changed.

Not only had the desert sand, gun blasts and heat penetrated her psyche during her one-year deployment, but a carcinogen had made its way into her body as well. Unbeknown to her, the carcinogen was making a home in my sister's body, along with the Anthrax vaccine, depleted uranium, burn pit smoke and contaminated water dished up at every meal.

In March 2006, when my sister was 41, she was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive, stage-IV dysgerminoma cancer, also called “germ cell” cancer, which is usually only seen in pregnant women and teenage girls. The cancer was advancing quickly, wrapping itself around her internal organs like an octopus and gathering fuel from her central abdomen.

My sister was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for immediate surgery and further testing, when a volleyball-sized tumor was removed from her abdomen. Fortunately, doctors were able to corral her cancer, but only after 10 months and 35 rounds of exhaustive chemotherapy.

She wasn't the only one undergoing such trauma. While visiting her at Walter Reed, I witnessed many soldiers returning from Iraq with cancer, unknown to the public and unacknowledged by the military. Walter Reed had two floors dedicated solely to the soldiers arriving daily with cancer. Their lives were spared on the battlefield, but the cancer was ravaging their bodies from within.

I began to do research, and was alarmed to discover how the military uses depleted uranium, especially in Iraq. Soldiers I talked to at Walter Reed began to say the same thing: Cancer is not a “war wound,” so the military denies responsibility.

Since soldiers are uninformed about depleted uranium, they don't wear protective gear and unknowingly inhale the toxic, pollen-like, yellow dust. The toxins develop into different forms of rare cancers within four to 36 months.

In August 2002, before the Iraq war commenced, U.S. Army Col. J. Edgar Wakayama wrote a report for the military, "Depleted Uranium (DU) Munitions," which pointed to the health and environmental risks associated with depleted uranium. Depleted uranium is produced as a byproduct of the enrichment process for nuclear reactor-grade or nuclear weapon-grade uranium. Due to its extreme density, it is used as the armor plating in 16 different size cartridges of U. S. ammunition.

Depleted uranium, which can particularly damage the kidney and bone, is radioactive, which means it produces alpha particles, beta particles and gamma rays. Alpha particles can cause cell damage and cancer; beta particles are hazardous to skin and eyes.

Wakayama outlined three methods of human exposure: shrapnel wounds, inhalation (lung fibrosis, risk of lung cancer and thoracic lymph nodes) and ingestion (contaminated soil, contaminated drinking water and food). Children playing at impact sites can ingest heavily contaminated soil. The slow leeching of depleted uranium into the local water supply contaminates plants and food.

Even after the internal release of this study, the Defense Department did not heed warnings. Seven months later, the U.S. military began the “Shock and Awe Campaign.” They proceeded to drop 320 metric tons of depleted uranium munitions in Iraq.