The Battle of Fallujah claims another victim


Vinny growing his hair for cancer patients. Picture from Fox News 10 in Arizona.

This is the story that flashed across my FB feed a few mornings ago. It had all the tear-jerk potential that you’d want in a story from Fox News 10 (the affiliate in Phoenix, Arizona). To be fair, Fox isn’t the only entity picking this story up and we’ll get to that later. Anyway, to cut to the chase: Seven-year-old Vinny Desautels of Roseville, California (above) had a soft spot in his heart for victims of cancer. He saw women who were cancer survivors being given beauty treatments by his mother prior to a gala, and many of them had lost their hair. At age five, Vinny decided to grow his hair out and then have it cut off so that he could supply material for wigs for cancer patients. This is the sort of soft-soap story that local media outlets love, a story about volunteerism that involves a kid who’s barely old enough to read.

And now a bittersweet twist. Vinny himself has been diagnosed with rare and particularly aggressive cancer. He has a tumor on one eye, and another on his pelvis. Per the Washington Post, Vinny has Stage 4 aggressive cancer, and doctors are almost certain that it’s Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer that manifests in the bone or soft tissue. Per a note on the St. Jude’s cancer center website, a child with Ewing’s Sarcoma that has spread has a 30% chance of survival. My sympathy goes out to Vinny and his family.

But the story that no one wants to touch is this: Vinny Desautels may be the latest American casualty of the Battle for Fallujah in the Iraq War. I know that’s an extremely provocative statement. I know some people will read this and be angry at me for even bringing it up. I claim no knowledge of oncology. I am not a public health employee. I do not have a degree in epidemiology. But over my years in the anti-war movement, I’ve read about the devastating effects of the use of weapons packed with Depleted Uranium. Americans have been looking the other way on the waves of illness that have followed our misadventures in the Persian Gulf region. And this feels like one of the stories that has the root causes of a child’s disease papered over. 

I was suspicious of the story when I first read the Fox News and other accounts. Something didn’t click. But the Washington Post story mentioned it in passing: Desautels (Vinny’s father–ed) is taking time off from his job at a farm hardware company. He is a U.S. Army veteran who served in the infantry for seven years, including in Iraq. During his time there, Desautels fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah, the bloodiest conflict of the Iraq War. Still, he said, “None of that really prepares you for this.”

If you know anything about the siege of Fallujah, you might know that there has been significant controversy over the US use of banned weaponry there.A group called the Fallujah Project has taken on the task of documenting the siege and resulting death toll. Their story of the history of the battle is hereBut you should care more about the aftermath of the battle. One report came in from the IndependentDramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukemia in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which was bombarded by US Marines in 2004, exceed those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, according to a new study…Iraqi doctors in Fallujah have complained since 2005 of being overwhelmed by the number of babies with serious birth defects, ranging from a girl born with two heads to paralysis of the lower limbs. They said they were also seeing far more cancers than they did before the battle for Fallujah between US troops and insurgents.

Of course, our military leadership knew of the toxicity of the weapons we were using. Douglas Rokke, a US Army veteran of the Gulf War, had blown the whistle on the use of depleted uranium ammunition in that conflict. Troops who’d been around ‘friendly fire’ incidents and gotten through the misfires without harm soon found themselves with a variety of illnesses traceable to radiation exposure. Rokke’s research has some detractors at the moment, but one of his supporters was the late Rosalie Bertell (more on her below). Bertell wrote about the epidemic levels of certain cancers in the years after the Trinity Atomic bomb test and subsequent decades of weapons tests and accidental radiation releases.  

Those cancers persist today: villagers near the Alamagordo Atom bomb test site have long sought government recognition of the diseases brought to their community by that fallout from 1945. They’re not alone. Those who lived closest to the test sites – such as the 100,000 people who were directly downwind of Nevada’s fallout – have seen their families decimated. In the Mormon community of St. George, Utah, 100 miles away from “Ground Zero” – the spot where the bombs were detonated – cancer used to be virtually unheard of among its population. Just a few years after the tests began, St George had a leukaemia rate 2.5 times the national average. The number of radiation deaths are said to have totaled 1,600 – in a town with a population of just 5,000.

There’s more on this issue here, here, and here. You do not need to wear out the Google button to find American soldiers who have been victims of toxic battlefields. The US military knows by now that soldiers exposed to radiation and toxic weapons have some profound health problems that will impact both them and their offspring. A study of British Gulf War vets (cited here) indicates that soldiers anywhere near DU ammunition had health issues: Veterans of the conflicts in the Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo have been found to have up to 14 times the usual level of chromosome abnormalities in their genes. It has raised fears that they will pass cancers and genetic illnesses to their offspring. The study is the first to analyse chromosome deformation in soldiers.”High levels of genetic damage do not occur naturally. It increases the probability of cancer, deformed babies and other genetic conditions significantly,” said Professor Albrecht Schott, a German biochemist who coordinated the research.

It’s worth noting that the Veterans Administration has been denying claims for Gulf War Syndrome for decades, even though (in many cases) the claimants eventually received compensation for war related injuries. The VA has been blocking many similar claims from the more recent Iraq war. They’ve even blocked compensation for the hapless sailors on board the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, one of sixteen ships that were deliberately parked downwind from Fukushima as part of  ‘Operation Tomodachi‘ in the days after its reactors melted down. Even the former Japanese Prime Minister has backed the sailors suing TEPCO. Meanwhile, research has not been done on the long-term effects of such exposure. One could argue that the research will not be done because the entities who’d be able to afford to underwrite it don’t want to establish the connection between exposure and injury.

Rosalie Bertell had no such desire to suppress links between cancer and radiation exposure (including long-term effects on the parents’ DNA). Though she didn’t have the kind of peer-reviewed research that would force the world’s nuclear weapon powers to ban their use, her book NO IMMEDIATE DANGER, on ionizing radiation and the risks posed to the human race, made a case that millions of ‘excess’ cancers were being caused by the testing of weapons and the effluents from nuclear power. She made the case in a speech excerpted here.

If you want to help out veterans, it wouldn’t hurt to know what happens to their own (and their future offspring’s) health on a toxic battlefield.That’s research the VA should be doing. And ALL Americans who ‘support the troops’ should demand that the cost of lifetime care for soldiers (and their families) should be factored into our war planning.

In the meantime, say a prayer for poor Vinny Desautels.



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