A soldier's boots are often treated with sacred regard, once they carry a warrior safely through combat.
But for one US soldier, who volunteered for his Gulf War tour, Mark Panzera, his boots were the first sign that something was very wrong.
He was an Army mechanic in the 144th Service and Supply Company of New Jersey, which in 1991 prepared US tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles that had been hit by "friendly fire" for shipment home.
This front-line equipment had been inadvertently hit by American gunners shooting radioactive depleted-uranium (DU) bullets at what they thought were Iraqi tanks.
For weeks after the mistake, the 144th worked at a salvage site in Saudi Arabia, getting into every corner of every vehicle to recycle equipment, wearing T-shirts and shorts, eating on and sleeping beside the vehicles.
Suddenly one morning, Mr. Panzera recalls, before his team began work, two experts arrived looking like astronauts, wearing hooded masks and suits - and carrying radiation detectors.
Before the two unexpected visitors approached the vehicles, they first ran their instruments over the awestruck mechanics. Their clothes were contaminated, but Panzera's boots especially set the detectors crackling.
The dust left over from the impact of DU bullets hitting the tanks had clung to the cleanup crew.
"'You're hot,' they told us, and I asked: 'What do you mean?' " Panzera remembers. "I was angry. Nobody tells you nothing, and the next day you are contaminated."
Later, Panzera received an official letter confirming his exposure to DU radiation. He has been seeking government compensation for what he says is DU-related illness.
Mixed messages from the top
By the Pentagon's own admission, its policy toward use of DU weapons has been inconsistent. Several military and independent reports describe the potential danger of DU particles trapped inside the body, though most deem the overall risk to be "acceptable." Strict federal and military rules govern every aspect of DU use and decontamination.
But the Pentagon today calls its own regulations - based on US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) guidelines, which require masks and suits when dealing with DU contamination - "total overkill."
In 1993, a report from the US General Accounting Office, the government's investigative arm, found that Army officials "believe that DU protective means can be ignored during battle."
Then, in 1995, all four branches of the US military approved a multimedia DU training kit. In January 1998 it was endorsed as "impressive" by the deputy secretary of defense, John Hamre.
The kit, obtained by the Monitor through the Freedom of Information Act, said "the greatest threat is during open-air, live-fire testing. We can call combat a great big open-air, live-fire test." An area hit by DU "remains contaminated, and will not decontaminate itself."
The kit was never issued, and it is now under review.
"They [the NRC] have their own standards. The military's [standards] are under review," says Bernard Rostker, the Pentagon's special assistant for Gulf War illnesses. He first raised doubts publicly only last August. He said the "extremely restrictive" NRC rules are "poorly suited" to war, and "need to be rewritten."
Reasons for backing DU
Critics say the Pentagon has reasons for its apparent downgrading of DU dangers: The bullet pierces enemy armor like no other, it's cheap, and any confirmed link with health problems could trigger a flood of compensation and reparations claims.
And the cost of cleaning up DU residue in the Gulf would be prohibitive, as well. The price tag for removing 152,000 pounds of DU in the now-closed, 500-acre Jefferson Proving Ground in Indiana has been estimated to be $4 billion to $5 billion. More than four times that amount of DU was spread during the Gulf War, over a significantly larger area.
"The government is institutionally incapable of telling the truth on this matter," says Bill Arkin, a former military intelligence analyst and columnist for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. His analysis: DU is too troublesome for the Pentagon to keep in its arsenal.
In January 1998, Rostker reported that "failure" to alert troops to DU hazards "may have resulted in thousands of unnecessary exposures," but said those exposures "had not produced any medically detectable effects."
Angry veterans say that DU could be a reason that an estimated 1 in 7 of them report a set of symptoms known as Gulf War Syndrome, and have pushed their case on Capitol Hill. They estimate that hundreds of thousands of troops were exposed to DU during the fighting or on post-battle tours of the front line. Climbing on destroyed Iraqi tanks was a favorite activity, along with collecting war souvenirs. Among other sources, the veterans point to a 1990 report commissioned by the US Army that links DU to cancer and also makes clear that "there is no dose so low that the probability of effect is zero." They also remember Pentagon reluctance to divulge health hazards in the Vietnam War.
"This [DU] is the Agent Orange of the 1990s - absolutely," says Doug Rokke, a former Army health physicist who was part of the DU assessment team in the Gulf War, and DU project director for the training package.
Underscoring the official inconsistencies, Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin said in September that the Pentagon's "assertion that no Gulf War veterans could be ill from exposure to DU ... contradicts numerous pre- and postwar reports, some from the US Army itself."
As much politics as science
In a sign of the Pentagon's own confusion, Rostker told a White House oversight panel last November that he was "misguided" to issue so strong a statement - that ruled out DU as a cause of Gulf War Syndrome - in an August report. "I stand corrected," he stated.
The problem seems as political as it is scientific: "Misinformation disseminated by both the Iraqi government and the US Department of Defense has made analysis of DU impacts difficult," notes Dan Fahey, Gulf War veteran and author of an extensive DU report for veterans' groups published last year.
Protection guidelines for handling DU are as difficult to establish as a single speed limit for every American road, says Ron Kathren, director of the US Transuranium and Uranium Registries in Richland, Wash. But NRC guidelines "are in fact adequate" for DU, he says, and "if they are 'overkill,' that's OK, too. I'd rather err on the side of safety."
Col. Eric Daxon, a senior Pentagon radiation expert with the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, said in an interview that the military needs to come up with its own "acceptable risks" of DU, compared to the other threats of combat.
Protecting soldiers from DU can also put them at risk during battle, he said. Gas masks and suits can overheat a soldier and impair vision. The goal today is to keep exposures "as low as reasonably achievable," he adds.
"Reducing the total risk ... of getting shot, of getting wounded, of getting long-term cancers" is the new aim, he says. "We are really trying to balance all of those things."
As the Pentagon now weighs the use of DU munitions in NATO's war against Yugoslavia, the debate about the risks of DU is certain to escalate.
"I think we have been inconsistent," says the Pentagon's Rostker in the interview. "We published a standard ... that is inconsistent with the hazards of DU."
As those arguments continue, Panzera has had several operations and health problems that he attributes to his DU exposure. Worried about taking contamination home before he left the Gulf, Panzera cut holes in his uniform and exchanged it for a new one. He left his soldier's boots "in the middle of the desert."
"I guess they are waiting until half of us are dead before they give in," he says, echoing the view of many US veterans whose patriotism has long since given way to cynicism. "My volunteering days are over."
IN YESTERDAY'S MONITOR
Tracking the origin and use of depleted-uranium bullets
*Questions about DU in Kosovo
*A rare report from Iraq's radioactive battlefield
*Widening debate over DU's effect on humans
*Iraqi claims of DU-related illnesses