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February 27, 2006

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

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.

And 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, "The Health Consequences of the Iraq War" panelists were Dr. Barry Levy, a past president of the American Public Health Association, Office and Professional Employees Secretary-Treasurer Nancy Wohlforth, U.S. First Infantry Iraq War veteran, Garrett Reppenhagen, and Boise, Idaho, native Elizabeth Frederick, whose husband/boyfriend served in Iraq.

All five oppose the war. Wohlforth is co-convener 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 opposition to a U.S. war.

Sunkett said he opposes the war, started in March 2003 by GOP President George W. Bush, because of the similarities between Iraq and Vietnam, where he served 1967-68. That includes the shifting reasons for going to war and the difference between those reasons and what service personnel found on the ground.

"When we came home from Vietnam, we thought we would be attacked" by anti-war protesters here, Sunkett added. 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," Sunkett said.

Besides battlefield deaths, the five discussed other impacts of the war, both on U.S. health issues. Levy produced statistics on the war, including an estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilian dead, destruction of 12 percent of its hospitals, water and sewer breakdowns leading to disease and lack of medical personnel. U.S. issues included:

* 2,500 dead U.S. service personnel and more than 16,000 seriously injured.
"This is a body parts war," Reppenhagen 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.
"I have a friend, Adrian, in Walter Reed Medical Center in D.C., whose face was blown off. They gave him a new face, but He asks: "How am I going to go out on a job interview looking like this?" People don't realize the horrors that are occurring on a daily basis" to U.S. service personnel in Iraq, Reppenhagen added.

* 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, Fire Fighters" 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, Levy said.

* Potential nuclear contamination of U.S. troops. Reppenhagen explained 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 Medical Center in D.C., 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. When flashbacks to Iraq waken a spouse who then can't resume peaceful sleep, both members of the couple are up all night, she said.
"My soldier came home in November. Physically he's home, but mentally he's absent," Frederick added,
"Thirty percent of returning officers have stress-related health problems" as a result of their wartime service, Levy said, quoting the Army's surgeon general.

* Reppenhagen identified a new type of stressful health problem, which the military has yet to recognize: Returned U.S. soldiers whose only way "to stay sane" is to try to find some justification for their actions, by asking why they were sent to Iraq--but who get no good answers from Bush and other policymakers. "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. "If we're going to be able to protect ourselves from terrorists, you can't do it with a strained and devalued public sector,"Sunkett said. "Our public health system is underfunded because it's been contracted out to the private sector, and they aren't up to speed."

The panelists demanded the labor movement get behind anti-war protests, beyond the AFL-CIO resolution. That includes joining a mass rally in New York against the war scheduled for April 29.

Including both the Iraq war and anti-union actions and edicts, "The biggest terrorist is right down the block over there," Wohlforth said, gesturing out the AFL-CIO's end windows at the White House home of GOP President George W. Bush.

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