Louisiana recently passed legislation for all returning veterans to have the right to get a best practices health-screening test for exposure to depleted uranium. Interviewed here is Bob Smith, one of the activists that helped make this bill possible. He is with the Louisiana Activist Network at: NewDemocracyrising.com. He is also I am a member of Veterans for Peace and the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War. Born a Texan and raised in a Navy family with three siblings, moved to Louisiana in 1977 a few years after returning from Viet Nam. He worked with adolescents in a psychiatric hospital where he met his wife, a co-worker, returning to the military and retired eight years ago as a Command Sergeant Major. He became actively involved the day Congress gave the President unconstitutional power to make war on Iraq and has been active ever since in the peace movement and with the Presbyterian Church.
Zeese: What made you pursue legislation regarding depleted uranium in Louisiana?
Smith: As a twenty-year veteran I have been concerned about veterans health since I returned from Viet Nam. From first-hand experience I knew the treatment of veterans by our country was highly inadequate after their service. Each year after Gulf War I, more and more veterans were being diagnosed with a mysterious illness, Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) without significant research for cause and effect much like what happened with Agent Orange contamination.
I learned about how the government dealt with Agent Orange contamination during the eighties as an outreach counselor at the VA’s Viet Nam Veterans Outreach Center or Vet Center here in New Orleans. We were actively involved in trying to alert the VA to the effects of Agent Orange contamination. For twenty-five years a government study done by the Rand Corporation denied any cause and effect between Agent Orange and health problems experienced by veterans and their offspring. Just this week the VA has finally recognized the connection between Agent Orange and diabetes. Remember the last troops returned from Viet Nam over thirty years ago. Worth mentioning is that the same Rand Corporation now denies any cause and effect between depleted uranium contamination and health.
Late last year after a lot of reading I found out about depleted uranium. In January at the Jazz Funeral for Democracy, a peace march in New Orleans organized by the Louisiana Activist Network, I met a young Gulf War I veteran, Dennis Kyne. He talked with me about what he knew first hand as a combat medic about illnesses of our veterans even before they returned home and what he has found out about DU since returning home. I then did more research and studying. In March I met Leuren Moret, a geoscientist, who reaffirmed everything that Dennis Kyne had told me and reaffirmed what I had been reading. I then did more research and studying including conversation with Doug Rokke. Doug was the overall supervisor in charge of the clean-up after Gulf War I and is an expert in depleted uranium. Thirty to forty percent of his team are now dead.
I then became concerned about what could be done to bring this issue out into the public conversation. Leuren told me about a young lady in Connecticut, Melissa Sterry, who was doing something about it. Working with Rep. Patricia Dillon of Connecticut they were introducing a bill to have all of their state’s veterans tested. The always unselfish Melissa willingly shared a copy of the Connecticut bill with me. Melissa had been a member of a depleted uranium clean-up team after Gulf War I. She herself was very sick and had six of her eight team members die since returning home. All six were less than thirty-five years old.
Taking the Connecticut bill, changing the name to a Louisiana bill, and making a few minor amendments preceded a call to my Louisiana congressperson, Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock. The submission deadline was less than twenty-four hours after our meeting. Rep. Juan LaFonta sponsored and Rep. Jefferson-Bullock co-sponsored the bill. The deadline was made.
Zeese: What does the legislation accomplish?
Smith: The legislation will allow all returning veterans to have the right to get a best practices health-screening test for exposure to depleted uranium. The test will use a bioassay procedure involving sensitive methods capable of detecting depleted uranium at low levels and the use of equipment with the capacity to discriminate between different radioisotopes in naturally occurring levels of uranium and the characteristic ratio and marker for depleted uranium.
This test will determine if a soldier has been contaminated. It will prevent mis-diagnosis so soldiers are not given the wrong medications that usually make them sicker. It will allow the contaminated soldier to decide about parenting further offspring who have an increased chance of serious birth illnesses or defects.
The bill also prescribes a reporting mechanism from the Louisiana’s Attorney General to the legislature that requires that awareness sessions and training have been done as required by Army regulations.
Zeese: What tips do you have for activists in other states interested in pursuing this in their state?
Smith: Stay focused. Depleted uranium testing is for discovery of contamination of a very hazardous material made from radioactive nuclear waste. This is something that truly supports the troops. Remind your elected representatives of that often
Read, study, and discuss with the experts and others experienced in this type of legislation. Other advocates should remember that the weapons manufacturers do not want this in the public. They make a lot of money off this death-bringing material. Likewise the military does not want to give up these very effective offensive weapons regardless of how it effects our soldiers or civilians, enemy soldiers, or the environment. Although we did not encounter resistance from those two potential adversaries, weapons manufacturers or the military, others might and they should be prepared to bring in experts. Having veterans testify helps. Another veteran, Ward Reilly, from Baton Rouge was instrumental in helping get the bill through committee.
Zeese: What were some of the challenges you faced with this legislation and how did you overcome them?
Smith: The only real obstacle we encountered was educating our representative. We knew we would have to educate her and do it quickly but fortunately she agreed to a minimum one-hour meeting. We were lucky as both representatives cared deeply about our troops and taking care of them after they come home. There were no other obstacles.
Zeese: What are your next steps?
Smith: We have been having awareness sessions at coffeehouses and public events to educate the public, either by passing out literature, making educational speeches, posting literature on the internet, or showing documentaries. We are also communicating with advocates in other states by sharing information, resources, networking, and offering tips to help. And if that doesn’t work I may just stand on top of the roof and scream out the truth.
Note: I retired after 20 years in the Army and National Guard as a Command Sergeant Major, serving three tours in Viet Nam as a Special Forces Green Beret and was mobilized for Desert Storm. Education includes a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. Currently employed as an engineer living in New Orleans with Julie my wife and life partner for over twenty-six years and our dog, Maggie. Member of Veterans for Peace, Viet Nam Veterans Against the War, and the Louisiana Activist Network.