Wars health impact vast, panel says

WASHINGTON (PAI) — The U.S. health impact of the war in Iraq is extensive, sometimes subtle and extends beyond U.S. troops to their families and the public at large, a five-member panel warned a forum of unionists in Washington.

The panelists told the Feb. 23 session, one of a series on health issues sponsored by the AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees, that if people knew the full impact of the Iraq war, including the health impact, they would turn against it.

“If this stuff was shown on TV, the public would demand the war would end in about a week,” said Communications Workers Vice President Brooks Sunkett, a Vietnam veteran. That’s one big difference between Iraq and Vietnam, he noted: U.S. television cameras are not showing the struggles and setbacks of troops in the field.

Besides Sunkett, other panelists on “The Health Consequences of the Iraq War” were Dr. Barry Levy, a past president of the American Public Health Association, Nancy Wohlforth, secretary-treasurer of the Office and Professional Employees and a member of the AFL-CIO’s executive council, Garrett Reppenhagen, an Iraq war veteran, and Elizabeth Frederick of Boise, Idaho, whose husband served in Iraq.

All five oppose the war. Wohlforth is co-convenor of U.S. Labor Against the War. Sunkett and Wohlforth led USLAW’s successful lobbying at the AFL-CIO convention last year for the federation’s first-ever resolution opposing a U.S. war.

Sunkett said he opposes the war because of the similarities between Iraq and Vietnam, where he served 1967-68. That includes the government’s shifting reasons for going to war and its misrepresentations of reality.

“When we came home from Vietnam, we thought we would be attacked” by antiwar protesters, Sunkett said. But the U.S. protesters hated the policy, not the troops. Now U.S. policymakers say the same thing, and accuse Iraq war foes of opposing the troops. “It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now,” he said.

Levy produced statistics on the war, including an estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilian dead, destruction of 12 percent of Iraq’s hospitals, a lack of medical personnel, and water system and sewer breakdowns, leading to disease.

U.S. health issues included the following:

• 2,500 dead U.S. service personnel and more than 16,000 seriously injured. “This is a body parts war,” Reppenhagen, a former infantryman, said. Unlike in past wars, seriously injured soldiers are surviving, but minus arms, legs and faces. Those injuries also produce a lot of stress, he said. Levy estimates at least 30 percent of returning officers have stress-related problems.

• Diversion of U.S. resources to the war. Levy said two-thirds of the National Guard and Reserves have now served in Iraq, many of them on repeat tours of duty, with an average tour of 15 months. “Many are first responders, police, firefighters” at home, he added. “We saw what happened when they aren’t there: In Hurricane Katrina, they and their equipment were in Iraq and Afghanistan,” producing U.S. public health problems.

• Potential nuclear contamination of U.S. troops. Reppenhagen said the latest smart bombs include uranium, as does body armor. Troops were told not to enter blown-up homes or vehicles, in order to cut their radiation exposure. He knows two injured colleagues, now at Walter Reed, who developed throat cancer from exposure. “The military admits it,” he added.

• High stress among returning veterans, exemplified by a high divorce rate among military families. Frederick noted that stress manifests itself not just among the vets, but among their relatives. “My soldier came home in November,” Frederick said. “Physically he’s home, but mentally he’s absent.”

• Reppenhagen identified a new type of stress-related health problem, where returned U.S. soldiers try “to stay sane” by searching for some justification for their actions by asking why they were sent to Iraq, but getting no good answers. “They don’t have post-traumatic stress disorder in the common sense of the word, but they’ve got anxiety disorders that aren’t being covered. They’re freaking out,” he said. Some are turning to crime and alcohol, directing their anger at themselves.

• Devaluation of U.S. public services, including public health and safety services, in favor of spending on the war.

The panelists urged the labor movement get behind antiwar protests, including by joining a mass rally in New York against the war scheduled for April 29.