If ever a man's been 10,000 miles in the mouth of graveyard, Dr. Doug Rokke has, for when you really look into Depleted Uranium, as he has, time and space open wide to reveal tombstones of future generations.
To hear Rokke (Rocky) tell it, he's lost friends, colleagues and portions of his own corpus to Depleted Uranium (DU to those in the field). He's been shot at, run off the road, and had his good name smeared in the press. As an Army expert on DU deployment during and following the first Gulf War, he stopped cooperating with Army DU policy when he realized not all its victims were designated enemies, and that his own government was in denial about this horrific reality. Rokke says most American casualties in the First Gulf War were the result of friendly fire involving DU weapons.
The U.S. Government and others challenge much of Rokke's testimony, but he's won enough medals and offered enough evidence to convince many that, far from proactively tending to needs of ailing veterans, the Department of Defense has long tried to cover up bad effects of DU. It's also tried covering up its own refusal to follow Rokke's recommendations that all war veterans be screened for cancer, skin rashes, neurological problems, respiratory and other ailments.
Rokke believes excruciating deaths from DU could follow in our wake for thousands of years, though prophecy may be trickier for a military and technical man than for, say, Bob Dylan, who sang "It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall" during the Cuban missile crisis. Forty-five years later those words never seemed so prescient. The rain started falling years ago in a radioactive drizzle.
You would've never known it Saturday morning, May 19, standing on the emerald campus of East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, aglow with trees backlit by neon sunshine. Yet inside the conference hall you could almost feel low-grade radiation bearing down as Rokke paced a wooden stage bristling with projectors, screens, computers and other tools peculiar to modern prognosticators of doom.
Rokke was one of several speakers at the Conference on Depleted Uranium Production in Appalachia. About 50 or so showed up for the all-day event, including several from Christian Peacemakers Team, an international activist organization. I'd been reading and hearing about DU for years from email buddies living in Hawaii and San Francisco, near DU testing grounds. I owed it to myself to meet some of the central players in the anti-DU crusade, if only because we in East Tennessee are culpable.
Oak Ridge has provided much of the DU that's wound up in hardened shells like the ones used by us and allies on Iraq, Bosnia, Serbia, Lebanon and Afghanistan, according to Rokke. Many of those munitions were built at the Aerojet Ordnance Tennessee, a plant at nearby Jonesborough, a topic of some prominence at the conference.
Depleted Uranium is a byproduct of enriching naturally occurring uranium and also a product of spent reactor fuel. Weapons manufacturers love it because it's tough, heavy, plentiful, and readily bursts into flame at high temperatures, like that attendant on firing it from the bore of a Bradley Fighting Machine. Aerojet and others make a variety of bullets, shells, tanks and bunker-busting bombs from DU. Rokke rolls out the catalogue almost in a single breath. They include munitions for rifles, machine guns, bunker buster bombs, cluster bombs, cruise missiles.
Rokke's a brassy, gregarious man who speaks with the certitude of a prophet. His rapid-fire incantations ring in your mind in words like these:
"So we looked at this stuff and looked at this stuff and looked at what happened to all of us, from Gulf War I and since. I looked at the medical reports of when Israel used DU in Sinai in '74 and '76 and then all of a sudden everything came together. It's a mess, an absolute total mess." Or when he says….
"There is no effective medical care for the exposures of what you're seeing. Once you get hit by one of these things you turn into a crispy critter, lock, stock and barrel. Note the impact. That's uranium dust and it goes and it goes and it goes and it goes…." It's elemental. Fire releases it to the wind, the earth, the water.
Following him onstage was Cathy Garger, a social worker who taught herself journalism in order to get her message out about the psychological traumas she'd witnessed. Then came Dr. Mohammed Miraki, whose book, Afghanistan After Democracy exposes the failure of the American experiment in that country. It includes pictures he took of babies with internal organs growing on the outside, others with bulges that look like mal-formed second heads. Still others resemble frogs or lizards, with bulging eyes and lipless mouths. It's hard not to turn away. It's hard not to look. Yes, I contradict myself. It's hard to talk about. You can spend all day at a conference like the one held that sunny Saturday and come away ill equipped to discuss what you've seen.
For one thing, it's demoralizing. The half-life of portions of DU happens to be 4.5 billion years, about as long a time as the earth's been in existence. It will remain radioactive for as long as the earth's likely to circle the sun.
Yes, it's so low-level that DU is being sold as a boon to humankind. According to DU mongers, it could never cause cancer. It's so benign it comes recommended as counterweights in domestic aircraft and to make super duper golf clubs, car bumpers and more. But that's before it's atomized and churned up again and again in test ranges and battlefields, to blow about the planet and be inhaled, exhaled.
DU technology is hard to grasp, because it's both rocket science and nuclear science, and most of what you hear about its effects amounts to circumstantial evidence. For example, one hears from a variety of sources that cancer deaths are up in Baghdad 500 to 600 percent since 1991. And that birth defects and miscarriages are on the rise in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. That Americans who served in the first Gulf War have a higher incidence of cancer, neurological disorders, deformed children and other ailments than veterans of any other American war.
While such statistics are well documented, the case against DU is circumstantial by its very nature. After all, say proponents, maybe burning oil wells, smashed munitions, chemical warfare and poor healthcare are to blame for the increased ailments that occur wherever DU rains down. Maybe it's just a coincidence.
But what if it's true? What if all the circumstantial evidence points to real harm? Then the hard rain that's fallen in Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Kuwait and anywhere else DU gets vaporized by warfare or preparations for war will persist to the end of time.
In the words of the poet, "I saw a black branch with blood that kept dripping."
He might've added: "I saw a man carve there, Made in Tennessee."