Gregory B. Hladky, Capitol Bureau Chief
HARTFORD– Gulf War veteran Melissa Sterry voice shook as she told state lawmakers Thursday about the devastating illnesses she blames on her contact with depleted uranium ammunition and armor in Kuwait.
“On the outside, I look perfectly normal,” said Sterry, a 42-year-old New Haven resident. “On the inside, my body is destroying itself.”
Sterry told lawmakers about her chronic headaches, the pneumonia she suffers through three or four times a year, muscle spasms, chronic diarrhea, blood in her urine and stool and the three recorded heart attacks she has survived.
“Eight of us served together,” she said about her buddies in the National Guard. “There are two of us left alive. … Id like to live to see 45 –most of my friends didnt make it to 30.”
Sterry said she is now “in combat” with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs over medical coverage because the government insists that its studies show depleted uranium “wont cause any long-term health risks.”
Sterry was testifying in support of a bill to require that Connecticut National Guard troops now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan be properly screened and treated for depleted uranium contamination. The bill is still in committee.
She warned that the potential for exposure to depleted uranium is far higher in this war because more of it is being used in ammunition and armored vehicles and troops are being exposed for far longer periods.
Officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs failed to respond to requests for comment on Sterrys claims about her medical problems.
State Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-New Haven, testified that she introduced the legislation because she has heard from military people all over the United States that “the people at desk jobs in Washington, D.C., are discounting the danger” of depleted uranium contamination.
Dillon said the Army already requires that soldiers who come in contact with depleted uranium ammunition and armored vehicles be routinely screened and treated for contamination. “Unfortunately, many people throughout the country who are in the military believe that this isnt happening,” Dillon said.
Last year, the New York Daily News reported that it paid for tests on nine New York National Guardsmen who had just returned from Iraq, all of whom were suffering from various illnesses. Four of the soldiers tested positive for exposure to depleted uranium.
In response to the news articles, Army officials tested 600 additional soldiers and reported that none had tested positive.
“They dont want to hear about us,” insisted Sterry, predicting that the government will respond only “when enough of us die.”
Depleted uranium results when enriched uranium is separated from natural uranium when fuel is made for nuclear reactors.
The United States uses depleted uranium, or “DU,” to increase the effectiveness of anti-tank shells and armor-piercing ammunition and bombs. DU is also used in armor plating in tanks and other fighting vehicles. It has been in common use since the Persian Gulf War and some veterans groups blame DU for “Persian Gulf Syndrome.”
“The DU were using in Iraq is much greater than we used in Gulf War one,” Dillon said. “I dont want us to repeat the mistakes we made back then.”
The Department of Defense released a study last October that found that “the health risks from inhaling airborne particles of depleted uranium are very low.” A five-year study by an independent research institute paid for by the DOD reported that even “in extreme cases, exposure to ?erosolized?depleted uranium did not pose a health risk.”
Dillon, however, said there are other studies that indicate DU depletes calcium, affects the kidneys and bones and can have an impact on a persons DNA.
During her testimony before the legislatures Committee on Veterans Affairs, Sterry reminded lawmakers that the federal government for years also denied that the use of the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War was a serious health risk. Later studies proved it was.
Sterry said she served for six months at a supply base in Kuwait during the winter of 1991-92. Part of her job with the National Guard Combat Equipment Company A was to clean out tanks and other armored vehicles that had been used during the war, preparing them for storage.
She said she swept out the armored vehicles, cleaning up dust, sand and debris, sometimes being ordered to help bury contaminated parts. She said that when the M-8 chemical alarms her unit used were triggered, the word would come down “to take off our chemical gear, that the M-8s were malfunctioning.”
“According to the government, I was never exposed to DU because I never drove a tank,” Sterry testified.
“There is this perpetual denial that is occurring.”