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Reserve major denounces ‘DU mess’

By Patrick O’Neill
Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Towson, Md.

Doug Rokke is the U.S. Army’s premier expert on the dangers of depleted uranium. Unfortunately, Rokke, 50, didn’t learn enough about the dangers of DU to prevent his own exposure to the radioactive substance that he believes has caused illness and death to scores of his military colleagues, and to perhaps thousands of others in countries where the United States has used DU munitions.

Rokke, who lives in Alabama and teaches at Jacksonville State University, is a major in the Army Reserves. He was exposed to radiation from depleted uranium "while cleaning up the DU mess" in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. He may have also been exposed twice more while conducting research for the Army in 1994 and 1995.

"Mine was all inhalation or absorption," said Rokke, who came to Maryland last week hoping to testify as an expert witness at the trial of four Catholic pacifists charged with damaging two A-10 Warthog aircraft, the type of plane used to fire DU shells during the Gulf War and more recently in Yugoslavia. "Inhalation has caused confirmed reactive airway disease."

Since his exposure, Rokke said he has lost most of his fine motor skills, his vision is damaged and he has only 60 percent lung function. "I live with continuous pain," he said.

After years of unsuccessfully challenging the Pentagon to tell the truth about DU and implement safeguards to prevent further exposures, Rokke went public with his story. Recently, he was interviewed on "60 Minutes," and by media outlets throughout the world.

"The United States deliberately used depleted uranium munitions in Iraq, Kuwait, Okinawa, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia, Puerto Rico and within the United States," Rokke said. "Thousands of individuals have been exposed, and today many are sick or dead. DU is a health hazard if it is inhaled, ingested or gets in wounds."

Department of Energy documents released Jan. 29 confirm the hazards of uranium exposures, Rokke said. "Respiratory and skin protection must be worn by everyone within 80 feet of any DU-contaminated equipment to prevent exposures. DU contamination will make food and water unusable. Today irrefutable evidence suggests that adverse health and environmental effects occur unless all contamination is removed."

Rokke, who was not permitted to testify, said he was warned by many to not attend the trial. In a statement released after the trial, Rokke said: "Everyone should consider if they want thousands and thousands of radioactive heavy metal poison bullets in their own backyard. If not, then it should not be left anywhere in the world where children may be exposed."

Rokke called for medical care for all individuals who may have been exposed to depleted uranium; the removal and disposal of all depleted uranium penetrator fragments, contaminated equipment and oxide contamination; and a ban on the use of depleted uranium munitions.

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2000