May 21, 2005
A Survivor’s Perspective
An Interview With
Gulf War Veteran who served in Kuwait
By W. Leon Smith
Melissa Sterry is a 42-year-old Gulf War veteran who served for six months at a supply base in Kuwait during the winter of 1991-92. Her job with the National Guard’s Combat Equipment Company A was to clean out and prepare tanks and other armored vehicles that had been used during the war for storage. She was also ordered to help bury contaminated parts.
Sterry recently testified before state lawmakers in Connecticut on the effects of depleted uranium in support of a bill, introduced by State Rep. Patricia Dillon, that requires that Connecticut National Guard troops now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan be properly screened and treated for depleted uranium contamination.
Sterry lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
ICONOCLAST: Tell me about what is going on in the Connecticut Legislature regarding testing soldiers for depleted uranium.
STERRY: We have two different bills here in Connecticut were working on. We have HB6008 that says soldiers returning have a right for an independent test for depleted uranium. There is a federal law that requires soldiers be tested for exposures to depleted uranium. There are Army regulations requiring it. There are Army publications and technical bulletins explaining how the physicals need to be performed. It is not happening.
The state law is saying soldiers have the right to this test, and that the federal government is not living up to its own laws, so the state is going to take care of it.
ICONOCLAST: The state would conduct the tests?
STERRY: We would ensure that independent testing be done. At this point, we’re not quite sure how the financing of that is going to occur, whether or not the state would pay for it. Whether or not the National Guard will pay for it. Whether or not we would turn around and bill the federal government. The financing of it is up in the air right now, but people are pushing really hard to say it’s federal law. The feds are not doing what they are supposed to be doing; therefore, we’re going to bill them for doing their job.
ICONOCLAST: This passed in the legislature?
STERRY: No. It’s on the docket to be voted on.
ICONOCLAST: It’s already gone through a committee.
STERRY: It’s gone through two committees. It unanimously passed the Veterans Affairs Committee. It unanimously passed the Public Health Committee. The hold-up right now is determining the fiscal note. We’re determining the cost and working it into the budget because Connecticut has a fiscal cap. We have budget issues that we’re working with.
ICONOCLAST: What about the Senate?
STERRY: We have an integrated system. The bill is going to be voted on in both the House and the Senate. The committees are joint committees, so by passing it out of the Veterans Committee and out of the Public Health Commitee, it’s seen by both Democrats and Republicans. It’s been seen by both senators and representatives.
ICONOCLAST: Is there a date in which you expect to have a vote?
STERRY: Probably by the end of next week.
ICONOCLAST: Are the local papers covering that? Can I get online and find a story about this?
STERRY: Sure. You need to reach out to the Hartford Courant and talk to a reporter named Denny Williams.
ICONOCLAST: What’s your stake in this? Are you a victim?
STERRY: No, buddy, I’m a survivor. The only ones who are victims when it comes to depleted uranium are children.
The second bill that is facing Connecticut is Bill 1245. It calls for the formation of a task force, a health study, a conference, and permenant health registry to track veterans health. It recognizes that we need to test to determine the health of veterans. But if we don’t have the additional support structure — just because we know what the health of veterans is doesn’t mean we’re going to be able to respond to it. The second bill takes care of the other piece.
On the one hand, you have to test for things. On the other hand, you have to track veterans’ testing.
You need to understand what is the best kind of test for depleted uranium.
We are also trying to learn from Vietnam. Every war has a signature illness. Every war has soldiers coming home with visible injuries from bullets and bombs, but every war also has soldiers coming home with illnesses that are unique to that war.
In World War I, it was mustard gas.
In World War II, it was extended stays in POW camps.
In Vietnam, it was Agent Orange and Agent Blue.
In Desert Storm and in these wars now, it’s depleted uranium. That’s what 1245 does.
My interest is that I served in Desert Storm. I was exposed to depleted uranium. At that time, we didn’t know about depleted uranium. We didn’t know what it could do to the human body in these extremely low levels of exposure. People didn’t understand what was making us sick.
ICONOCLAST: You didn’t know when you were there that depleted uranium was an ingredient.
STERRY: I had no idea. The depleted uranium issue started to reveal itself in ‘96, ’97, ’98, and ’99. We knew Desert Storm veterans were sick. We didn’t know what was making Desert Storm veterans sick. Then when depleted uranium weapons were used again in Bosnia and Kosovo, we began to understand the connection. We now know what depleted uranium does.
ICONOCLAST: When you were there, you worked in the clean-up?
STERRY: I was involved with logistics. I worked in the prepositioned stocks. These were the supplies that we left behind for the next time we needed to fight. I was involved with cleaning that equipment and putting it in storage.
ICONOCLAST: And it was after this that you realized you started becoming ill?
STERRY: I was injured while I was in Kuwait, so through all of 1992, I was going through surgeries to have my leg rebuilt, and I thought my health problems were related to my injuries. Then by 1993, it was clear that something else was going on. In 1994 and by February 1995, it was clear I was sick, and it was not from my injuries, and there was something wrong with me.
ICONOCLAST: And they determined it was depleted uranium?
STERRY: No. I have never been tested for depleted uranium. No one has ever definitively diagnosed me as having been exposed to depleted uranium. However, there is enough circumstantial evidence in terms of having symptoms, and I have pictures of where I was, what I worked with, and so it’s abundantly clear that I was surrounded by equipment that had depleted uranium in it, and that I was working with the clean-up process, so I was exposed to what is called uranium oxide. Uranium oxide is a byproduct of a DU weapon.
ICONOCLAST: So it’s very obvious to you then that DU is the cause of the illness.
STERRY: No. I don’t think it’s the exclusive cause, but I think it’s a contributing factor. Desert Storm veterans have a rather broad collection of symptoms, some of which you see in veterans of Bosnia and Kosovo, where DU weapons were also used, some of which you see in veterans of the current conflict where depleted uranium weapons were used. Some of our symptoms you don’t see in these other groups, and I think those are things that were brought about by other unique environmental factors.
There were a lot of experimental vaccines used on us. There are also some profound questions about the destruction of the various bio-chemical warfare stocks that Saddam Hussein had in place at the time, whether or not we were accidentally exposed from those materials when those stocks were destroyed.
So some of our symptoms meet the critiera of exposure at low levels of sarin gas. Some of our symptoms meet the criteria for reactions to mulitiple vaccines. I’m not saying that depleted uranium is the only thing that made us sick, but clearly, it is a contributing factor.
ICONOCLAST: What do you think needs to be done to correct the problem of DU? Do we quit using it?
STERRY: There are several things we need to do. As a soldier, this is one extrordinary, effective weapon. I dig this stuff.
But I think we need to view it the same way we viewed mustard gas at the end of World War I, that the collateral damage that DU provides outweighs the benefits of utilizing the weapon and that we need to cease usage of this material.
The usage of this material is war on generations not yet born. It wages war on children long after military conflict has ended. It’s not just children of Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It’s the children of American soldiers because we bring this radioactive poisoning back to our families in our genetic material. It’s inside our bodies. We have to stop using it.
I think the second thing we need to do is completely, fully, accurately assess, measure, test, diagnose — pick an verb — our soldiers’ health because doctors can’t heal us until they know what the problem is.
And the third thing is we have to do everything we can to return our National Guard, our Reservists. We have to do whatever we can to bring back people’s health.
ICONOCLAST: I know here in Central Texas, there’s a move to save the Waco Veterans Hospital from being closed..
STERRY: It’s hard to believe what’s happening there, that they would even consider shutting it down. We’re going to need every facility that’s available. It is our duty to care for our veterans when they sacrificed everything in defense of the nation.
ICONOCLAST: Are there tell-tale signs that a person has been exposed to DU?
STERRY: It doesn’t burn your skin the way external exposure does. It’s consuming your major organs on the inside.
ICONOCLAST: Like a microwave oven?
STERRY: Kind of. Depleted uranium gets funky.
A bulk of depleted uranium is insoluble. It’s organic in nature. When it slips into that uranium oxide state it attaches itself to other metals and materials that are inorganic. That makes it insoluble. But there are still parts of depleted uranium that are organic, that are soluble. So you can test for depleted uranium with a urine test, but that only gets you the soluble part of DU. A bulk of the DU is insoluble and attaches itself to your bones and your major organs, so it doesn’t wash out with your kidneys.
ICONOCLAST: You can’t test for that in any other way?
STERRY: Not yet. Those tests are being developed by people in Britain and Europe and Japan. Right now, when the government says, “Oh, we’re testing soldiers. We’re testing people. We’ve got this urine test, and we’re not getting positive results, so they weren’t ever exposed,” there’s a fault in that logic. They are using as soluble test for an insoluble item.
ICONOCLAST: Do they have an idea when these other tests will be available?
STERRY: As far as I know, other nations have it. I’m trying to track it down. There are two nations left in the world that utilize depleted uranium — the United States and Great Britain. Everybody else not only doesn’t use the stuff, they’ve forbidden the stuff. Last week, from what I understand, Belgium went so far as to ban all of these materials from their country and are in the process of telling the United States, “Get your garbage out.”
You’ve got a sovereign nation saying, “Get your tanks out. Get your armored personnel carriers out. Get your nuclear warheads out. Get everything out of our country that contains this material.”
There’s a real problem with being able to utilize communication systems to try and find the appropriate test.
On Tuesday, I was at the U.N. for an all-day session of conferences about depleted uranium, part of the nuclear proliferation treaty situation. And, I spoke with a member of the Scottish parliament about what they’re doing. I spoke with Dr. Rosalie Bertell who’s doing a lot of the testing components to try to find out what’s out there. And the Japanese are doing a tremendous amount of this because they’ve had 60 years of living with external radiation poisoning. I’ve been learning about the health situation of hibakusha (radiation victims who were terribly scarred and diseased sufferers of the first atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki),and they’re dealing with what they call “radiation wars.”
People get really freaked out, and they get really scared, and they go into major denial. Part of how we’ve been successful so far (in educating the public) is to keep it real simple. Talk about National Guard. Talk about local troops. Talk about how it impacts people on the local level. Talk about your first responders, your National Guard, or your emergency response people.
Some of the great quotes to come out of people and the best movements that we’ve had in New York State on the subject were because the legislator turned around and asked the local emergency response people for their plans to handle responses to these situations, and their EMS people had no idea that these materials were even being transported through their area.
And they immediately got on board and said, “Oooh, we can’t play with this stuff. You’ve got to ban this. You’ve got to get it out of here.”
ICONOCLAST: Maybe we need to talk to some local EMS personnel to find out if they even know what depleted uranium is.
STERRY: Do they know what it is? Do they know if it is being transported through their area? Do they have any kind of response to it? If you have a 747 crashing in your back yard, you’ve got exposure. It may be extraordinarily small, but you’ve got an exposure. And we’re talking about materials that fluctuate between the size of a tenth of a micron to ten microns, and that’s all aerosol, and that’s all stuff that you can inhale, and it’s stuff that can pass through the pores of your skin.