Soldiers demand to know health risks

Special Investigation


Doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center recently told Staff Sgt. Ray Ramos that a biopsy revealed his rash comes from leishmaniasis, a disease spread by sandflies and contracted by hundreds of G.I.s in Iraq.

Until last week, however, Army doctors refused requests by Ramos and a few others in the 442nd Military Police to have their urine analyzed for depleted uranium, a procedure that can cost up to $1,000.

Three of the nine tested in the Daily News investigation ? Sgt. Herbert Reed, Spec. William Ruiz, and Spec. Anthony Phillip – also were tested by the Army in November. But the results were withheld for months despite repeated inquiries.

Last week, after Army officials received press inquiries about the 442nd and discovered that a group from the company had sought independent testing, an administrator at Walter Reed told Reed and Phillip that their tests from November had come back negative for depleted uranium.

The News’ tests also showed negative results for Reed and Phillip, but Ramos tested positive. The soldiers of the 442nd are not the only ones to raise questions about depleted uranium in Samawah.

In August, a contingent of Dutch soldiers arrived in the town to replace the Americans. Press reports in the Netherlands revealed that Dutch authorities questioned the U.S. beforehand about the possible use of DU ammunition in Samawah. According to Sgt. Juan Vega, senior medic for the 442nd, the Dutch swept the area around the train depot with Geiger counters and their medics confided to him they had found high radiation levels. The Dutch unit refused to stay in the depot, Vega said, and pitched camp in the desert instead.

And in February, after Japanese troops moved into the same town, a Japanese journalist equipped with a Geiger counter reported finding radiation readings 300 times higher than background levels.

“There’d been a lot of fighting in Samawah before we got there,” said Staff Sgt. Ray Ramos, 41. “The place was dusty as hell, and the sandstorms were hitting us pretty good.”

Felled at first by what he thought was the sweltering Iraqi heat, Ramos expected to recover quickly.

“My health just kept getting worse,” he said. “I tried to work out each day to get through it but I kept getting weaker. A numbing sensation hit my hands and my face, and the migraine headaches became constant. I was afraid I was having a stroke.”

He was sent first to a Baghdad hospital for treatment, but with no neurologist available, he was shipped out to Germany and eventually to the U.S.

“I had rashes on my stomach for four months,” Ramos said. “And now, whenever I [lie] down, my hands fall asleep.”

Doctors at Walter Reed have been stumped. They’ve given Ramos braces to wear on his arms at night to try to prevent his hands from falling asleep, and they’ve prescribed a host of muscle relaxants and painkillers, but nothing seems to work.

“I have four kids. What happens to them now if I can’t work?” said Ramos, who was looking forward to a transfer from the NYPD Housing Bureau to the robbery unit in Brooklyn’s 75th Precinct once he returns from active duty. “I need them to investigate what’s going on with my body.”

Cpl. Anthony Yonnone, 35, a cop with the Veterans Administration in Fishkill, N.Y., has the highest DU levels of the four soldiers who tested positive, said Dr. Asaf Duracovic, who performed the testing funded by The News.

Yonnone said his nausea, skin rashes and migraines began in Samawah. “The headaches are constant and they don’t want to stop,” he said. “The rashes seem to come and go.

“We were always passing blownout tanks when we were out doing patrols.”

He recalled that American units in the town burned trash and waste each night in big drums near the train depot. “The combination of smoke and sand when we lit those fires covered everybody,” he said.

Evacuated from Iraq in August for minor surgery, Yonnone was sent first to Germany.

“They gave us a questionnaire. I marked that I wasn’t exposed to depleted uranium because nobody had even told us what it was back in Iraq,” he said.