Lori Brim cradled her son in her arms for three months before he died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Dustin Brim, a 22-year-old Army specialist had collapsed three years ago in Iraq from a very aggressive cancer that attacked his kidney, caused a mass to grow over his esophagus and collapsed a lung.
The problems she saw during her time at Walter Reed, including her son screaming in pain while doctors argued over medications, had nothing to do with mold and shabby conditions documented in recent news reports. What this mother saw was an unexplainable illness consuming her son.
And what she has learned since her sonâ€™s death is that his is not an isolated case.
Lori Brim has joined other parents, hundreds of other sick soldiers, legislators, research scientists and environmental activists who say the cause of their problems results from exposure to depleted uranium, a radioactive metal used in the manufacture of U.S. tank armor and weapon casings.
Health and environmental effects of depleted uranium are at the heart of scientific studies, a lawsuit in the New York courts and legislative bills in more than a dozen states (although not in Florida).
News stories claiming negative signs of depleted uraniumâ€™s impact, including death and birth defects, are surfacing from Australia to England to the Far East. The controversy rages within government bodies and underlies the theme of TV shows like a recent episode of the medical series â€œHouse.â€
While the military continues to deny the connection of depleted uranium to sicknesses plaguing returning servicemen and women, a newly mandated study stemming from legislation signed by President Bush in October is just getting under way.
The new study, which began in March, follows several that have been completed by the military into depleted uranium, a byproduct left when enriched uranium is separated out for use in nuclear power and atomic weapons. The Department of Energy gives it to arms makers, where its extreme density is valuable in the manufacture of armor and casings.
Despite a 1996 U.N. resolution opposing its use because of discovery of health problems after the first Gulf War, the military studies have concluded there was no evidence that exposure to the metal caused illnesses.
To the military, the effectiveness of weapons and armor made with depleted uranium outweighs any residual effects. Their bottom line: Depleted uranium saves soldiersâ€™ lives in combat.
Robert Holloway, president of Nevada Technical Associates Inc., a firm that specializes in radiation safety training, disputes any concern over depleted uranium.
â€œI have no financial interest in promoting depleted uranium,â€ Holloway wrote in an e-mail to The News-Journal. â€œThere really is no substitute for depending on the judgment of professionals in this field.â€
Holloway and others who believe depleted uranium is safe to use say the best authority in the scientific community would be individuals connected to the Health Physics Society.
Doug Craig of Ponce Inlet, a retired radiation biophysics scientist, is such a person. He doesnâ€™t believe low doses of radiation from depleted uranium are a problem.
â€œUranium occurs in a lot of places,â€ Craig said, â€œand man has been exposed to low concentrations of uranium for a long time.â€
But Brim and others think there will not be enough known until soldiers are tested for exposure. They compare the debate over depleted uranium to the controversy surrounding Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide used to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam. Speculation over its effects continued for more than two decades before the Defense Department agreed to compensate veterans who suffered from ailments linked to its use.
Brim often comforts other mothers whose sons and daughters are suffering from unexplainable, aggressive cancers, like a Michigan mother Brim met on the Internet.
The Michigan mom says she believes malignant tumors that resulted in removal of her Marine sonâ€™s ear, ear canal and half his face may be linked to depleted uranium. But the woman asks that her name not be used because her son still is a Marine – battling cancer, not bullets. And he has not been tested for D.U. exposure, she says.
In addition to consoling other mothers, Brim has tried unsuccessfully to raise awareness of the issue either through legislation or a lawsuit.
She recently traveled to Tallahassee with cancer lobbyists and left plate-size booster buttons with her sonâ€™s image, trying to raise the consciousness of Florida legislators. But she says she has not been able to interest anyone in creating a bill similar to one passed last year in Connecticut – the first state law in the nation aimed at helping National Guard personnel returning from Iraq to get tested for exposure to depleted uranium.
Other veterans are seeking help from legislators in states around the country, like Melissa Sterry, 44, of Connecticut, who served during the Persian Gulf War and suffers from multiple symptoms, including chronic headaches, infections and multiple heart attacks.
Sterry is an activist who keeps track of more than a dozen states that have introduced bills. That includes her home state, where a veteransâ€™ health registry is being created as a database for the federal government. Among the current list of states working on individual legislation, Arizona has state Rep. Albert Tom, a Democrat. For three years he introduced the issue of testing National Guardsmen, each time a bit differently. He patterned a bill after the Connecticut law this year.
â€œAgain it was heard (in committee), but it just didnâ€™t go anywhere,â€ said Tom.
Veterans might have better luck in court. Brim is closely following a trial in New York, where – despite a precedent that prevents military personnel from suing the government for injuries resulting from their service – eight National Guard veterans have won the right to be heard about their depleted uranium exposure.
One veteran in that suit, Gerard Matthew, says not only is he sick, but contends his little girlâ€™s birth deformities are related to his exposure to depleted uranium. The deformity, Matthew said, is similar to many being reported within the Iraqi population since the first Gulf War.
Oct. 2006: President George W. Bush signed the Department of Defense Authorization legislation. The House amendment was authored and introduced by Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wa.) ordering a comprehensive study – with a report due in one year – on possible adverse health effects on U.S. soldiers from the U.S. militaryâ€™s use of DU – Depleted Uranium. The Senate companion bill was backed by Joe Lieberman of Conn., a democrat at the time. (McDermottâ€™s Web site: http://www.house.gov/mcdermott)
Feb. 6, 2007: The New York newspaper, The Post Chronicle, reported that U.S. government scientists at the Ames Laboratory in Iowa say they are close to developing nanostructured material of tungsten and metallic glass to eliminate the use of depleted uranium in ammunition. In a recent phone call by The News-Journal to senior scientist Dan Sordelet, reported to be leading the research team, he said he is â€œno longer working on thatâ€ and declined to give any further information.
March 23, 2007: The Tico Times of San Jose, Costa Rica, reported that the U.S. and Costa Rican activists are lobbying to enlist Costa Ricaâ€™s Nobel Peace Prize winner and disarmament defender to lead their uphill battle against the military use of a popular radioactive weapon.
April 3, 2007: ABC News Online, Australia, reports that the Australian Veterans Affairs Minister Bruce Billson says he is concerned the group â€œDepleted Uranium Silent Killer,â€ which is opposed to the use of depleted uranium weapons, is using Gulf War veterans to run an anti-uranium scare campaign. The group says overseas tests confirm two Sunshine Coast veterans from the first Gulf War – one in the Army and the other in the Navy – were exposed to the heavy metal during their service 15 years ago.
April 10, 2007: Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota) reports a state Senate committee OKâ€™d a bill providing for testing veteran national guardsmen returning from Iraq to see if dust from spent-uranium munitions has harmed them. Link: http://www.startribune.com/587/story/1112856.html.
This article first appeared by Daytona Beach News Journal reporter Audrey Parente in that publication on Sunday, April 15, 2007.