By John Keyser
I served as a Hospital Corpsman with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines in Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah, Iraq. The fighting was heavy, and it was the bloodiest Marine battle since Iwo Jima. The city itself was left as a wasteland worse than anything you’d see in a Mad Max film. There was enough loss of life, both civilian and military, to deal with without worrying about being exposed to toxic airborne chemicals. We never wore gas masks and our day-to-day clothing was barely enough to protect us from the sand, much less any chemical contamination. Fallujah, Najaf, and Basra account for almost a fourth of the chemical contamination that has been found across Iraq.
One of the war’s toxic legacies was our use of depleted uranium (DU), used to pierce through armor in different battles across Iraq. DU creates a fine dust upon impact that, when inhaled, settles into people’s bones and internal organs. I know veterans who are unexplainably ill and have been refused testing for exposure to depleted uranium. When veterans who have been in the line of fire come home with failing health and the cause cannot be pinpointed, psychiatrists often ascribe it to mental problems. We need to know what we were exposed to in Iraq to better understand our health problems and get the necessary treatment.
That is why my organization, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and the Center for Constitutional Rights today filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Defense to get more information about where and when DU was fired in Iraq. With this information, I and other veterans can make better conclusions and decisions about our health.
This information is not only critical for veterans but for Iraqi civilians as well. It’s no secret that large numbers of birth defects have been reported across the country, and recent studies suggest that DU leads to interference with the development of a fetus during pregnancy. Reports from Basra – another site of heavy fighting where, by experts’ estimation, DU was used on a large scale – are stark. Childhood leukemia rates in Basra more than doubled between 1993 and 2007. Local authorities estimate that in the Basra area alone, 46,000 tons of weapons debris remains, which the wind picks up and blows into people’s homes, food, and lungs.
DU is also believed to be a carcinogen, and cancer rates in Iraq are spiking. We still don’t know everything about the effects of DU, but without knowing where it was used, there is no scientific way to study them.
Our government cannot expect us to accept unexplained sickness as part of the job or to let Iraqis continue to be exposed to depleted uranium remnants. The only thing the government has to do is own up to the locations where depleted uranium was fired in Iraq so that it can be cleaned up and we can have more information about whether or not we were exposed. They are not the ones who have to live with mysterious illnesses, PTSD, amputated limbs, crippling addictions, and a distrust of the very people we risked our lives for. With new military actions in Iraq, questions about the use of weaponized depleted uranium become even more urgent.
I, and many veterans like me, would like to see Iraq cleaned up for the current and future citizens who live there. My brothers and sisters (even two biological sisters) have bled to ensure that the country was stable at the urging of the past and present administrations, to say nothing of the fact that it didn’t remain that way. It says a lot about this country’s veterans that we are committed to getting the necessary information to help humanitarian organizations clean up the toxic sites that continue to sicken Iraqis.
Keyser is a combat veteran, writer, and character designer for 11Bit studios and is currently working on a game called This War of Mine, which explores the effects of war on civilians. He is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.