Army to test N.Y. Guard unit
Army officials at Fort Dix and Walter Reed Army Medical Center are rushing to test all returning members of the 442nd Military Police Company of the New York Army National Guard for depleted uranium contamination.
Army brass acted after learning that four of nine soldiers from the company tested by the Daily News showed signs of radiation exposure.
The soldiers, who returned from Iraq late last year, say they and other members of their company have been suffering from unexplained illnesses since last summer, when they were stationed in the Iraqi town of Samawah.
Dr. Asaf Durakovic, a former Army doctor and nuclear medicine expert who examined and tested the nine men at The News' request, concluded four of them "almost certainly" inhaled radioactive dust from exploded depleted uranium shells fired by U.S. troops.
Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), after learning of The News' investigation, blasted Pentagon officials yesterday for not properly screening soldiers returning from Iraq.
"We can't have people coming back with undiagnosed illnesses," Clinton said. "We have to have a before-and-after testing program for our soldiers."
Clinton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said she will write to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld demanding answers and soon will introduce legislation to require health screenings for all returning troops.
During meetings with Pentagon officials last year, Clinton said "one of the issues we raised was exposure to the depleted uranium that was in the weapons, and how they were going to handle it."
She was assured then that troops would be properly screened.
But the soldiers from the 442nd contacted The News after becoming frustrated with how the Army was handling their illnesses.
Six of them say they repeatedly sought testing for depleted uranium from Army doctors but were denied.
Three who were tested in early November for DU said they had been waiting months for the results. Two of those finally got their results last week - both negative.
Testing for uranium isotopes in 24 hours' worth of urine samples can cost as much as $1,000 each.
But late last week, after learning of The News' results, the Army reversed course and ordered immediate testing for more than a dozen members of the 442nd who are back in the U.S.
The rest of the company, comprising mostly New York City cops, firefighters and correction officers, is not due to return from Iraq until later this month.
"They ordered all of us who are here at Fort Dix to provide 24-hour urine samples by 1 p.m. today," one soldier from the company said Friday.
Late Friday, Pentagon spokesman Austin Camacho said he could not confirm or deny that new tests had been ordered for the soldiers of the 442nd.
"It's hard to imagine, theoretically, that these men could have harmful exposures," Camacho said, because none of them had been inside tanks during direct combat.
Army studies of depleted uranium have concluded that only soldiers who suffer shrapnel wounds from DU shells or who were inside tanks hit by DU shells and immediately breathe radioactive dust are at risk.
Even then, Camacho said, studies of about 70 such cases from the first Gulf War have shown no long-term health problems.
But medical experts critical of the use of DU weapons, as well as some of the Army's own early studies of depleted uranium, say exposure to it can cause kidney damage. Some studies have shown that it causes cancer and chromosome damage in mice, according to the experts.
Depleted uranium, a waste product of the uranium enrichment process, has been used by the U.S. and British militaries for more than 15 years in some artillery shells and as armor-plating for tanks. It is valued for its extreme density - it is twice as heavy as lead.
Amid growing controversy in Europe and Japan, the European Parliament called last year for a moratorium on its use.
'Every time I ran I felt my throat
burning and my chest tightening.'
Sgt. Agustin Matos, a member of the 442nd Military Police of the New York National Guard and a city correction officer in civilian life, has all-too-vivid memories of his stay in Samawah, Iraq.
"The place was filthy; most of the windows were broken; dirt, grease and bird droppings were everywhere," he said. "I wouldn't house a city prisoner in that place."
He recalled a mandated morning run of about 3 miles on a sandy track near a train depot.
"Every time I ran I felt my throat burning and my chest tightening," he said.
Now, Matos, 37, believes his symptoms may be the result of radioactive dust he inhaled from spent American shells made from depleted uranium.
The Long Island man is one of four Iraq war veterans who tested positive for DU contamination, according to a Daily News investigation.
The soldiers and other members of the 442nd say they are suffering from physical ailments that began last summer while they were stationed in Samawah.
Matos, who was assigned to the 4th platoon's 2nd squad, arrived in Samawah last June, two weeks ahead of the rest of the company.
His advance team had orders from Capt. Sean O'Donnell, their commander, to ready a huge depot in a train repair yard on the outskirts of downtown Samawah as a barracks for the unit.
Once the entire company arrived, each platoon was assigned its own space inside the depot, which was bigger than a football field.
A locomotive that straddled a repair pit and an empty train car sat in the middle of the sleeping area, with two platoons assigned to bed down along one side of the train and two others along the other side.
Just outside the depot, two Iraqi tanks, one of them shot up, had been hauled onto flatbed railroad cars.
The company was so short-handed, according to the soldiers, that the commander would evacuate a G.I. only if he could no longer physically function.
Matos was sent home last year for surgery for a shoulder injury suffered in a jeep accident.
Since his return, he has had constant headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, joint pain and excessive urination.
After he recently discovered blood in his urine, doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center gave him a CAT scan and discovered a small lesion on his liver.
A 1990 Army study linked DU to "chemical toxicity causing kidney damage."
"Before I left for Iraq, they tested my eyes and I was fine," Matos said. "Now my eyesight's gotten bad, on top of everything else."
Another member of the company who tested positive for DU is 2nd platoon Sgt. Hector Vega, 48, a retired postal worker from the Bronx who has been in the National Guard for 27 years.
Since being evacuated to Fort Dix for treatment for foot surgery, Vega said he has endured insomnia and constant headaches. And like many of the sick soldiers, Vega said, "I have uncontrollable urine, every half hour."
One day, during a trip a few hours south of Samawah, he and another soldier stopped on the side of the road to photograph and check out two shot-up Iraqi tanks.
"We didn't think anything of walking right up to those tanks and touching them," he said. "I didn't know anything about depleted uranium."
As for the railroad depot where they slept, Vega recalls it as "disgusting. Oil, dirt and bird droppings everywhere, insects crawling all around us."
And then there were the frequent dust storms.
"They would blow all that dust inside the depot all over us when we were sleeping or eating. It was so thick, you could see it."
Originally published on April 5, 2004