Excerpted from Homefront: Aaron Thompson worried about Gulf War Syndrome – which he had read up on a little after hearing a few soldiers talk about it in the States.
Supposedly thousands of veterans had died following the first Gulf War ten years ago, and tens or even hundreds of thousands had fallen ill. Many were permanently plagued or disabled, and who knew from what?
It seemed unclear, and there were charges against the military of cover-ups and withheld information, and now there were websites and organizations trying to figure out the problem and make it more well known.
What had caused all the postwar illnesses, for real? Military vaccinations had been blamed, along with low levels of toxic chemicals. But one of the most worrisome things to Aaron that a lot of the groups pointed to was the three hundred tons of depleted uranium that had been left in the region by the US. Aaron worried about all the rounds of DU ammunition that would be fired into buildings and tanks and scattered on the battlefield during the coming conflict.
The stuff was toxic, even radioactive, and Aaron resented the fact that he had hardly been given any warning about it by the Army.
Doing his own reading, Aaron found out that in 1996 the United Nations had classified DU ammunition as an illegal weapon of mass destruction, but the US continued to use it despite the UN resolution.
Aaron knew next to nothing about where it would most likely be used and found, or how to protect himself if he came across it or was forced to operate – let alone camp or patrol – in areas where it lay about, or was likely to have leached into the soil and water.
Back in the States, Aaron had read that after the first Gulf War – which included Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm – as of May 2002, the Veterans Administration reported that apart from the 760 casualties of those two operations, “an additional 8,306 soldiers had died and 159,705 were injured or ill as a result of service connected ‘exposures’ suffered during the war.”
And amazingly, “the VA revealed that 206,861 veterans, almost a third of General Norman Schwarzkopf’s entire army, had filed claims for medial care, compensation, and pension benefits based on injuries and illnesses caused by combat in 1991.” And then “after reviewing the cases, the agency classified 168,011 applicants as ‘disabled veterans’,” and stated that “in light of these deaths and disabilities, the casualty rate for the first Gulf War might actually be a staggering 29.3 percent.”
Aaron read about other studies that found the casualty rate to be even higher than this one, the government’s own study.
Plus, Aaron came across another article about Gulf War illness and depleted uranium that so stunned him he printed it off and sealed the pages in plastic and carried them with him wherever he went.
There never seemed to be a good time to talk about it, but he intended to hang onto the article and bring it into Iraq so that if he and his teammates ever encountered depleted uranium or if he felt they were in danger of it, he would have something to show them, to prod them to be careful.
They were all in this together. And unfortunately, it seemed that just being in the arena of operations put everyone at risk in a way that not too much could be done about.
Aaron felt that to be the damned thing of it all, and he began to worry more about what exactly he had gotten himself into.
In his tent one night in Kuwait, just before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, US soldier Aaron Thompson pulled out the photocopied papers and read them over again. One was an article based on the work of a British journalist, John Pilger, who had interviewed Dr. Al-Ali, a cancer specialist at a hospital in Basra, Iraq. Dr. Al-Ali was also a member of Britain’s Royal College of Physicians.
“Before the Gulf War,” the first Gulf War, the Iraqi doctor said, “we had only three or four deaths in a month from cancer. Now it’s 30 to 35 patients dying every month, and that’s just in my department. That is a 12-fold increase in cancer mortality. Our studies indicate that 40 to 48 per cent of the population in this area will get cancer – in five years’ time to begin with, then long afterwards. That’s almost half the population. Most of my own family now have cancer, and we have no history of the disease. We don’t know the precise source of the contamination, because we are not allowed to get the equipment to conduct a proper survey, or even test the excess level of radiation in our bodies. We strongly suspect depleted uranium, which was used by the Americans and British in the Gulf War right across the southern battlefields. Whatever the cause, it is like Chernobyl here; the genetic effects are new to us.”
When Dr. Al-Ali was asked what he says to people who deny the connection between depleted uranium and physical ailments, he answered, “How much proof do they want? There is every relation between congenital malformation and depleted uranium. Before 1991, we saw nothing like this at all. If there is no connection, why have these things not happened before? I have studied what happened in Hiroshima. It is almost exactly the same here; we have an increased percentage of congenital malformation, an increase of malignancy, leukemia, brain tumors – the same.”
One thing was for sure, Aaron Thompson did not want any of these diseases hitting him and his buddies, and what came next in the article was even more frightening.
A physicist from the US Army, Professor Doug Rokke told the reporter, “I am like many people in southern Iraq. I have 5,000 times the recommended level of radiation in my body. Most of my team are now dead.”
The article concluded that what happened in the Gulf was “a form of nuclear warfare,” and that the fourteen-year embargo against Iraq, sponsored by the United Nations Security Council and supported by the US for over a decade, did not allow into the country the equipment needed to decontaminate.
When Colonel Doug Rokke criticized NATO commanders for not doing enough to protect their troops from DU, he was basically fired by the Pentagon.
And now here were Aaron and his buddies getting ready to fight and live in the land of depleted uranium.
It reminded Aaron of Stephen King’s novel The Tommyknockers, in which the people living in Haven, Maine, find something from outer space buried in a backyard that gives the townspeople increased powers of mind and body – at first – until they start to experience the horrible side effects: frequent menstrual flows, loss of teeth and hair, the sallowing of skin – all symptoms of radiation poisoning.
The main character Jim Gardener comes to realize that this power that gives the people of Haven new abilities to act and create does not give them the ability to actually understand what all is going on.
They build and use incredible devices but they do not know exactly what they are doing and are unaware of many harmful side effects. And later, some of them do not necessarily want to know.
Could that be like the Army, Aaron worried, the Navy, the Air Force raining down depleted uranium on other countries but horribly poisoning and killing its own soldiers in the process, not to mention the people of the country under attack, for years to come?
Aaron understood that The Tommyknockers was supposed to be an allegory warning against the dangers of nuclear power – a seemingly inexhaustible and powerful energy source but with extremely dangerous side effects.
He understood that only too well.
Surely there were precautions being taken, Aaron hoped.
After all, the difference between Haven and the Army was that in Haven the people were not organized. They had few group responsibilities, and not a lot of working knowledge and coordination – in some ways like the American public at large.
Whereas in government, business, and the military, the number of standard operation procedures and the degree of organization and systematization were intense.
People were specifically trained and focused to solve problems, the major ones at least – so Aaron believed, and hoped, for his own sake and those of his buddies. And also for the people of Iraq – the people he and his buddies were supposed to liberate.
But what did it say, really, for the quality of safety measures, if Aaron felt forced to carry around secretly in his flak jacket (tucked into one of the pouches where the SAPI plates were inserted) the crucial warnings about depleted uranium?
What did it imply about their degree of safety, that he did not feel free to much discuss these concerns even with his best friend Juan?
Maybe all the soldiers in the Army were somehow dangerously separated from each other, just like regular civilians.
And maybe the soldiers, like the protesters, would get more done for themselves if they had more soldier-to-soldier organization, both in the army, and independent of it too.
What would that be like? Did the soldiers need some kind of union? More say in what went on? Was that even thinkable?
Aaron felt danger everywhere.
He wondered what it would take for him to be able to talk seriously about some of his deepest concerns in the military simply with his best friend, let alone with anyone else in the squad.
How could he do it without being brushed off, laughed at, or scorned, or worse?
If it were true that soldiers could do nothing about such large concerns, was that in part because, immediately upon enlisting, they were trained, in an often unstated sort of way, to not talk and not think in any detail about what they knew and valued most but only to focus on what the Army brass valued most?
And what exactly did the Army brass value most when you got right down to it?
Aaron was under no illusions.
He tried not to be at least.
May we be forgiven – Aaron thought to himself on more than one occasion when he witnessed some brazen macho grandstanding, or some overt display of arrogance, or some subtle or blatant racism among the officers, his fellow soldiers or, worse, himself.
May we be forgiven, he thought, if we know not what we do.
Excerpted from Homefront