Protect the health of U.S. troops: Editorial

New York Daily News

April 7, 2004

Sgt. Agustin Matos, Sgt. Hector Vega, Staff Sgt. Ray Ramos and Cpl. Anthony Yonnone, veterans of the war in Iraq, have tested positive for exposure to depleted uranium. They know this because the Daily News arranged for medical screening that, by all rights, the military should have provided on their return to the U.S.
Matos, Vega, Ramos and Yonnone are members of the 442nd Military Police Company of the New York Army National Guard, a unit made up mostly of the city's Finest, Bravest and Boldest. They served in Iraq, knowing they might come home wounded, or not at all.

In other words, the troops of the 442nd kept their end of the bargain while the brass did not. The military shipped them stateside from Samawah, site of fierce fighting, without fully testing for exposure to hidden hazards, depleted uranium being among them.

Depleted uranium, a heavy metal that emits weak levels of radiation, is a valuable weapon. The military uses it both to harden tank armor and to add punch to artillery shells. A depleted uranium round will slice through an enemy vehicle because the metal is self-sharpening. It can also ignite on impact, adding to its lethal qualities.

Problem is, exploded shells and damaged tanks spew depleted uranium dust. While no one knows precisely how toxic the material is, it's definitely not something you want to ingest. According to the World Health Organization, long-term exposure to uranium may damage kidneys and lungs, but some G.I.s have lived with fragments in their bodies without apparent health consequences.

The News' Juan Gonzalez had tests done on nine soldiers' urine after they complained about headaches, shortness of breath, kidney stones and loss of bladder control. The samples provided by Matos, Vega, Ramos and Yonnone came back positive. There is as yet no certainty that any of the ailments have anything to do with depleted uranium, or with service in Iraq. What is clear, though, is that the military should have tested everyone in the 442nd, as is now underway, long before Gonzalez brought to light the danger.