The war’s littlest victim

[ Thanks to Bob Lee for spotting this piece. –BL ]

Keywords: depleted uranium

September 29, 2004 | New York Daily News

In early September 2003, Army National Guard Spec. Gerard Darren Matthew was sent home from Iraq, stricken by a sudden illness.

One side of Matthew’s face would swell up each morning. He had constant migraine headaches, blurred vision, blackouts and a burning sensation whenever he urinated.

The Army transferred him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for further tests, but doctors there could not explain what was wrong.

Shortly after his return, his wife, Janice, became pregnant. On June 29, she gave birth to a baby girl, Victoria Claudette.

The baby was missing three fingers and most of her right hand.

Matthew and his wife believe Victoria’s shocking deformity has something to do with her father’s illness and the war – especially since there is no history of birth defects in either of their families.

They have seen photos of Iraqi babies born with deformities that are eerily similar.

In June, Matthew contacted the Daily News and asked us to arrange independent laboratory screening for his urine. This was after The News had reported that four of seven soldiers from another National Guard unit, the 442nd Military Police, had tested positive for depleted uranium (DU).

The independent test of Matthew’s urine found him positive for DU – low-level radioactive waste produced in nuclear plants during the enrichment of natural uranium.

Because it is twice as heavy as lead, DU has been used by the Pentagon since the Persian Gulf War in certain types of “tank-buster” shells, as well as for armor-plating in Abrams tanks.

Exposure to radioactivity has been associated in some studies with birth defects in the children of exposed parents.

“My husband went to Iraq to fight for his country,” Janice Matthew said. “I feel the Army should take responsibility for what’s happened.”

The couple first learned of the baby’s missing fingers during a routine sonogram of the fetus last April at Lenox Hill Hospital.

Matthew was a truck driver in Iraq with the 719th transport unit from Harlem. His unit moved supplies from Army bases in Kuwait to the front lines and as far as Baghdad. On several occasions, he says, he carried shot-up tanks and destroyed vehicle parts on his flat-bed back to Kuwait.

After he learned of his unborn child’s deformity, Matthew immediately asked the Army to test his urine for DU. In April, he provided a 24-hour urine sample to doctors at Fort Dix, N.J., where he was waiting to be deactivated.

In May, the Army granted him a 40% disability pension for his migraine headaches and for a condition called idiopathic angioedema – unexplained chronic swelling.

But Matthew never got the results of his Army test for DU. When he called Fort Dix last week, five months after he was tested, he was told there was no record of any urine specimen from him.

Thankfully, Matthew did not rely solely on the Army bureaucracy – he went to The News.

Earlier this year, The News submitted urine samples from Guardsmen of the 442nd to former Army doctor Asaf Durakovic and Axel Gerdes, a geologist at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. The German lab specializes in testing for minute quantities of uranium, a complicated procedure that costs up to $1,000 per test.

The lab is one of approximately 50 in the world that can detect quantities as tiny as fentograms – one part per quadrillionth.

A few months ago, The News submitted a 24-hour urine sample from Matthew to Gerdes. As a control, we also gave the lab 24-hour urine samples from two Daily News reporters.

The three specimens were marked only with the letters A, B and C, so the lab could not know which sample belonged to the soldier.

After analyzing all three, Gerdes reported that only sample A – Matthew’s urine – showed clear signs of DU. It contained a total uranium concentration that was “4 to 8 times higher” than specimens B and C, Gerdes reported.

“Those levels indicate pretty definitively that he’s been exposed to the DU,” said Leonard Dietz, a retired scientist who invented one of the instruments for measuring uranium isotopes.

According to Army guidelines, the total uranium concentration Gerdes found in Matthew is within acceptable standards for most Americans.

But Gerdes questioned the Army’s standards, noting that even minute levels of DU are cause for concern.

“While the levels of DU in Matthew’s urine are low,” Gerdes said, “the DU we see in his urine could be 1,000 times higher in concentration in the lungs.”

DU is not like natural uranium, which occurs in the environment. Natural uranium can be ingested in food and drink but gets expelled from the body within 24 hours.

DU-contaminated dust, however, is typically breathed into the lungs and can remain there for years, emitting constant low-level radiation.

“I’m upset and confused,” Matthew said. “I just want answers. Are they [the Army] going to take care of my baby?”

We track soldiers’ sickness

For the last five months, Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez has chronicled the plight of soldiers who have returned from Iraq with mysterious illnesses.

His exclusive groundbreaking investigation began with a front-page story on April 4 that suggested depleted uranium contamination was far more widespread than the Pentagon would admit.

  • At the request of The News, nine soldiers from a New York Army National Guard company serving in Iraq were tested for radiation from depleted uranium shells – and four of the ailing G.I.s tested positive.
  • The day after Gonzalez’s story appeared, Army officials rushed to test all returning members of the company, the 442nd Military Police, based in Rockland County.
  • By week’s end, the scandal had reverberated all the way to Albany, as Gov. Pataki joined the list of politicians calling for the Pentagon to do a better job of testing and treating sick soldiers returning from the war.
  • Gonzalez’s expos? sparked a huge demand for testing. By mid-April, 800 G.I.s had given the Army urine samples, and hundreds more were waiting for appointments.
  • Two weeks later, the Pentagon claimed that none of the soldiers from the 442nd had tested positive for depleted uranium. But The News’ experts found significant problems with the testing methods.

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