Doug Rokke was a health physicist responsible for cleaning up depleted uranium after the Gulf War. Here, we publish the full transcript of John Pilger's interview with him, some of which appeared on 'Paying the Price'. The UK Atomic Energy Authority report provided some of the background to this interview.
John Pilger: What was your job during and immediately after the Gulf War?
Doug Rokke: In the beginning, prior to the ground war, the responsibility I had was training and educating all the medical professionals and the combat soldiers on the effects of nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare. But more important was what type of medical care and treatment, and along with that decontamination, do we need to do for those that may be injured or wounded during the war.
JP: And immediately after the war?
DR: With the completion of the ground war I was tasked as a health physicist responsible for cleaning up the depleted uranium or uranium 238 contamination.
JP: What did you know about the contamination, had you been forewarned?
DR: With the uranium 238 contamination the only warning we had was a single letter that came from the Surgeon General's office in the United States army. And that said, "think about DU, and this uranium contamination". And as we found out after the ground war - not only didn't we know anything about it, how to handle it, how to dispose of it, how to clean it up, what medical care to be given - nobody did - they just didn't tell anybody. Whether it be British Canadian German or US forces. They
just didn't tell anybody.
Who do you figure 'they' is?
JP: What was your reaction when you arrived on the battlefield where DU had been used?
DR: It can be summed up in three easy words: oh my God. The contamination was extensive, the casualties were grotesque. You have probably seen or heard of the term 'crispy critter' for the individual that's in a vehicle when it's struck by depleted uranium munitions. If they survive, they have burns and shrapnel - it depends whether they are in the vehicle. But the ones that died, they are just literally burned to a crisp.
JP: Now this was effectively in southern Iraq.
DR: It was throughout all Iraq, in Kuwait and also with the munitions testing and preparation in Saudi Arabia, so it covers the entire region.
JP: What do you estimate the effect on people living in that part of the world, living in southern Iraq?
DR: The effect depends on whether a person inhaled it, got some of it eating it or drinking it, or if they got the uranium contamination into an open wound. If they did then - dependent upon the amount that they had - what we're seeing now are respiratory problems, breathing problems, kidney problems, and cancers. We have individuals of our team that were actually known exposed and they have died of cancer. We have other individuals right now that have cancer. We have rashes, neurological problems. A lot of people - and again this is out of the whole complex toxic battlefield where DU contributes - lost fine motor function, individuals have neural psychology problems, short term memory losses. The uranium is a heavy metal poison and also a radiological poison, so we have to look at a conglomeration of potential health effects that then mix with other causes to create serious problems.
JP: How have you yourself been affected?
DR: My mission is not so much about myself as trying to get medical care specifically for everybody else that's been exposed. But from my own experience, they didn't test or measure our team for years and they still haven't. It was a deliberate action to deny medical care.
JP: How have you yourself been affected?
DR: The story isn't that I'm looking for what affected me. What it's about is the overall effects and what we're looking at is dependent upon whether a person inhaled, breathed it in, ingested it, ate, some DU contamination that got into a wound. And this can happen to anybody - the soldiers but more important today the women and the children and the non-combatants in Iraq and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
JP: Perhaps you could tell me anyway because I think it's quite important, I know you don't want to push your own self in any way but I think it's quite important...
DR: Respiratory problems, breathing problems, again the respiratory and breathing problems were suggested or documented as far back as the Manhattan Project in 1943. Some of the world's greatest scientists told General Leslie Groves that this stuff is going to cause almost immediate respiratory problems, so it's documented going way back. So the respiratory problems we have, the kidney problems, cancers. Members of our team have died from cancer. They were denied medical care. Other individuals have cancer and the rashes, the neurological problems, loss of fine motor function. Again this goes back to what uranium is when it's inhaled or ingested or gets in the body. It's not only radiological; it's a heavy metal like eating lead so you're going to see all the toxic effects.
JP: What level of uranium do you have in your body?
DR: Well again we're going back to the point of the deliberate denial of medical care and medical screening that we recommended be done immediately after the Gulf War. Within days or months after we found it, the US Department of Defence never tested me, still hasn't. The US Department of Energy did when I was running the Nevada test project in '94 and '95 and at that time they found out it was 5,000 times permissible. Although the army found out they didn't bother to tell me for about two and a half years.
JP: Let's get this straight, you have 5,000 times the safe level of uranium.
DR: Correct. In 1994 the uranium that was found in my body was 5,000 times more than anybody should have in their body. You're definitely not going to get that from dietary intake. It only came from wartime exposure, from doing the work.
JP: Tell me what you think the effect on the civilian population of Iraq will be. You see, when I was in Iraq there appeared to be an epidemic of cancer but they don't have any scientific studies to measure what their estimates are. Could you just comment generally on that?
DR: Numerous times, at various meetings and conferences, the Iraqis have asked for the medical treatment protocols. They've asked for the environmental clean-up protocols which the US Department of Defence and the British Ministry of Defence have refused to do repeatedly. With the extent of the contamination in Basra and all over Iraq where the DU was fired by the tanks and by the aircraft - over 300 tons - there's no doubt in my mind that, because that lasts forever unless it's been physically removed, that any woman or child, any soldier, any non-combatant, anybody that comes in the area that it gets into their body is going to have medical problems. The overall effects are the fact that we used a weapon that's indiscriminate for eternity and therefore unless the environmental clean up is totally completed and the medical care is provided, the effects are permanent and lasting forever and ever and ever. That's wrong.
JP: Just tell me a little bit more about the appeal the Iraqis have made for clean-up protocols.
DR: The initial appeal was an Iraqi position at a conference in Washington DC several years ago. Because the conferences are open to the public, they had Iraqi position representatives that came to the conference looking for help. They approached us at the conference - myself, members of the United States Secretary of Defence, members of the British Ministry of Defence, members of the VA, United States Veterans Affairs that provides care for the discharged or retired veterans - and asked for help, for medical protocols. They were rebuffed.
JP: In what way?
DR: It's just their responsibility - we don't need to tell them anything. The same thing with the medical care request. How do we provide assessment? What type of medical care do we need to give to all of these casualties? You've got to remember, we had over 100 friendly fire casualties in the United States and a handful in Britain - most of those have not received any medical care as of today. But in Iraq there are thousands and thousands of the soldiers that were wounded or exposed that didn't get any medical care - and all the civilians, the women and the children today. But that's expanded into Kosovo now because the United States deliberately ? NATO deliberately and wilfully used uranium munitions in this recent battle in Kosovo despite all the specific warnings that we gave them not to. It's bad.
JP: Now after the Gulf War you were involved in making some videos about this, could you tell me about that?
DR: Based on everything that we learned, all the input that we had - a lot of reports, a lot of science reading and everything, a lot of first hand experience - the US Department of Defence was basically ordered to prepare an entire education and training curriculum. That curriculum included videos as a supplemental part - visual is how you teach, you don't just stand there and lecture, you show people something. That curriculum, which was completed by December of 1995 and fully approved by not only all of the military forces in the United States, by the British Ministry of Defence, the Canadians, the Australians and the Germans because there were people directly assigned to help us do it from those countries - so totally approved and it didn't happen. This was to teach people -this is the soldiers and other civilians employed by the military - about the hazards. And how to properly work around depleted uranium contamination, and how to clean it up. And basically it's been done in part - but it's not been done.
The videos were made and they were basically shelved. The curriculum was made and it's only been partially implemented. I got a message through the official army chain a couple of weeks ago from the Centre for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine - that's your occupational health research group, part of the United States army. And in that e-mail it stated specifically we're getting all kinds of requests for depleted uranium training. And we're going?.wait a minute? it's been ordered numerous times repeatedly since 1993. It's all been available since January, December 1995, January 1996. Why not? So again it's just a deliberate action.
JP: Why do you think why not?
DR: It's very simple. If you tell everybody about what the real hazards are, they're going to seek medical help. The sooner they seek medical help the more likely it is that, if they were exposed and are sick from it, they're going to find the contamination in their body. If they wait long enough, the biological half life, which is how long the uranium's detectable in the body, is going to disappear. So therefore even though they're sick there's no evidence that they are sick or they were exposed. That's why medical care has been denied in Great Britain, in England, in Canada, the United States, all over the world. If we don't check it we won't find out they're sick. If we don't find out they're sick we're not responsible for them. But more important, more important, what this is all about? we're not liable for the non-combatants, the women and the children around the world that have been affected. That's the bottom line, this stuff is an indiscriminate weapon.
JP: You see we saw in Basra ward after ward after ward of children with cancers that they've never seen before, cancers of the nervous system and cancers of the muscles they've never seen before.
DR: Given the contamination that we found during the war, and we confirmed after the war in research in 1994 and '95, absolutely nobody should come within 25 metres, or climb on, or crawl in, or get anywhere near, depleted uranium destroyed or contaminated equipment, buildings or structures without full respiratory and skin protection. And if they don't, if they have that and there's whole areas that are totally contaminated because of the size of the battle, no wonder these people are sick.
JP: But you see under the imposition of the United Nations sanctions they can't get equipment to measure just how sick they are. They can't even get diagnostic equipment.
DR: That's wrong, it's criminal. You do not deny medical equipment necessary for assessment and care in the name of trying to force a government out. There's no doubt about how bad Iraq is and Saddam Hussein. And there's no doubt that we need to make sure that there is continuous monitoring so that he destroys his weapons. But at the same time the women and children have no control over what he does. The women and children can't change the government. The women and children are sick and dying not necessarily because of DU exposure but because of the whole host of the toxic battlefield. But they can't get medical supplies to provide simple medical care. That's wrong.
JP: The argument is that the equipment would be dual use and therefore used by Saddam Hussein in building up his weapons again.
DR: Very difficult to figure out how medical equipment can be turned into weapons. The medical equipment might be used to treat casualties if he decides to go to war again, but you still need to provide medical care for an individual that's wounded in a war either way. That's an obligation under God.
JP: Considering that this is one of the most populated parts of the Middle East, what is the scale of the disaster?
DR: Within those areas where the destroyed or contaminated equipment is, unless that is physically removed and totally disposed of properly, the disaster is for eternity. You cannot have contaminated equipment in terrain where people can inhale, ingest or get uranium contamination into a wound. You can't have women and children run in their back yard where uranium penetrators - each one solid uranium 238, not coated, not tipped, up to 4500 grams in mass- are laying. Who in their right mind would allow any women or child or anybody to play in their sand box or swing on their swing set with solid uranium contamination all over their back yard?
JP: Is there a parallel with the use of atomic weapons with both civilians and troops, and also with the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam?
DR: The comparison is very tight. The Canadians just recently are doing assessments of the Agent Orange exposures in the general population in Vietnam at this time, and that was broadcast on CBS News 60 Minutes in the United States a week ago. They're finding individuals sick all over from it. The warriors that went to war that got sick from Agent Orange are the same thing. So what we have is a deliberate use of a weapon that has an indiscriminate effect forever. That's wrong. The women and the children and non-combatants don't deserve to be affected for eternity.
JP: How should Washington and London be helping the Iraqis cope with this disaster?
DR: Well Washington and London, the officials in both governments, have an obligation to do two things. One is either to complete the environmental clean up themselves for the areas that they deliberately contaminated, or provide the guidelines for environmental re-mediation. And the second thing is they have a moral obligation to provide either the medical care and treatment, or to provide the protocols and the equipment that will permit the medical care and treatment. That's an obligation under God.
JP: You see I put it to the State Department spokesman and others and they said "well look, don't tell us that, it's all Saddam Hussein's fault".
DR: Saddam Hussein did not use depleted uranium munitions. The United States and Great Britain consciously decided to use depleted uranium munitions. They had other weapons of choice. When you go to war, yes, you've got to kill the enemy, if that's the political decision. But once you do that then the weapons should no longer have a lasting effect on the battlefield. The uranium munitions have a permanent effect to everybody on the battlefield.
JP: Does anyone care about the Iraqis?
DR: I don't think so. I mean there is not even any indication whatsoever in the United States and Great Britain that either the US Department of Defence or the British Ministry of Defence even care about the warriors, the soldiers, the veterans who are civilians. If they did they'd all have had the medical care. But the medical care has been deliberately denied to friendly fire casualties, the over 100 that we had eight years ago. Medical care has been deliberately denied to the individuals who were tasked to provide medical care and clean up the mess, not only those that live in Great Britain but also in the United States and other countries. So no, they don't care; they don't even care about their own. So why would they care about the enemy or the women and the children of the enemy?
JP: How much depleted uranium was used in that part of the world?
DR: In the Gulf War there was well over 300 tons that was fired. Again it's very important to understand during the Gulf War that three kinds of round were fired. A 30 millimetre round from an A-10 attack aircraft, the Warthog - over 900,000 rounds. Each individual round is approximately 300 grams of solid uranium 238. There were another 15,000 rounds - predominantly the 120 millimetre round - fired by the tank. And each individual round is over 4500 grams of solid uranium 238. These rounds are not coated, they're not tipped, they're solid uranium 238. However today we have evidence to suggest that there was also plutonium contamination mixed in with it that occurred during the manufacturing process. This is why the same problems are seen at Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee in the United States, at the Paducah Lab. at Paducah, Kentucky, out in the Four Corners at Colorado where they originally started the whole process, and then with everybody who was exposed during the war or since.
JP: It seems ironic that Saddam Hussein and Iraq have an embargo imposed upon them in order to get rid of weapons of mass destruction.
DR: Yes. When NATO or the United States or the UN or the coalition decided to put an embargo against Iraq for using weapons of mass destruction it's almost like they're executing the divine right of kings. You do what we tell you, but we don't need to do what we tell you to do.
JP: Was the Ministry of Defence here aware of this lethal after effect of depleted uranium before it was used?
DR: My understanding in speaking to your MPs, Members of Parliament in the last few days is that, yes, they were aware. The question is how much they were aware at the completion of the ground war. I'm not sure, but I do know by 1994 or 1995 that they were absolutely aware. They all knew that there were directives out there to provide medical care for everyone and yet as of today they're still not doing it.
JP: What's your personal view of the use of depleted uranium? You've come through from being a member of the armed forces, a nuclear physicist, a specialist, yourself affected. What's your personal view of that?
DR: Because depleted uranium is indiscriminate on the environment and the health of all citizens of the world it should be banned from this planet in perpetuity, forever.
JP: The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority have published a report, or not published a report but have certainly concluded, and you probably know about this, that if 8 per cent of the depleted uranium fired in the Gulf was inhaled it could cause 500,000 deaths. Is that an exaggeration?
DR: If there is one death caused by the deliberate use of uranium in war that's too many, if one child gets sick and die because of deliberate use, that's too many.