By JUAN GONZALEZ
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
The soldiers of the 442nd Military Police never heard of depleted uranium before they went to Iraq. They know only that inexplicable ailments have befallen them.
Last year, more than a dozen of the company’s soldiers were transferred back to Fort Dix for treatment of a variety of maladies. Frustrated with how the military was handling their concerns, they gave extensive interviews to the Daily News about their experiences, and nine of them eventually volunteered to be tested by a team of experts headed by Dr. Asaf Duracovic.
According to the soldiers, most of them became sick last summer while stationed in -Samawah, a town 150 miles south of Baghdad that was the scene of heavy combat in the first weeks of the war.
Their unit entered the town in June, following short stays in Diwaniyah, Karbala and -Najaf. They pitched camp at a huge, dusty, vermin-infested train depot on the outskirts of town.
That’s where, they claim, their problems began.
“One night, I had 10 or 15 people with temperatures over 103, unexplained night chills, all kinds of things,” said Sgt. Juan Vega, the company’s principal medic. About a dozen of the 160 soldiers in the company suddenly developed kidney stones, he said.
A 1990 Army study linked DU, to “chemical toxicity causing kidney damage.”
“I told our commander, ‘We need to get the hell out of this place, there’s something wrong with it,'” said Vega, 34, an FDNY paramedic.
The soldiers recall that two Iraqi tanks, one all shot up, had been hauled onto flatbed railroad cars less than 100 yards from where the company slept.
Pentagon officials have confirmed that tanks hit by DU shells are the biggest potential sources of battlefield radioactivity because when DU penetrators hit a target and explode, a fine aerosol of uranium oxide, or radioactive dust, is formed. The closer the tanks are to people, the greater the danger of inhaling the dust.
In addition, a UN environmental report on Iraq warned last year of a “high risk of inhaling DU dust” within 150 meters of any target hit by DU shells “unless high-quality dust masks are worn.” The soldiers never received dust masks.