Danny Guiles is the type of soldier some wish would silently fade away. During the Persian Gulf War he swept the back end of the frontline with a Battlefield Damage Assessment Team. His task was to forensically investigate destroyed combat vehicles to better understand the performance of their external armor, as well as ensure sensitive technology was secured. In 1991, that mission didn’t go as expected, as Guiles discovered each Bradley Fighting Vehicle and M1A1 Abrams tank he was dispatched to wasn’t the victim of Iraqi weapons, but had been destroyed by friendly fire. In doing so, he faced another trauma; depleted uranium, exposure to which he feels has led to decades of health problems.
“For 27 years I’ve been sick beyond sick, and I’ve lost 85 percent of my muscle mass,” Guiles says from his home 10 miles east of Salem. “For so long I’ve carried this burden. I need to talk about it, because when the first nine vehicles you see are full of your guys, who’ve been killed by your own people, you have to ask what the hell happened. This isn’t about me. It’s about the stories that didn’t make the headlines due to the fact they didn’t like the results.”
Guiles first joined the Marines in 1976 after leaving his native upstate New York. He later transferred to the U.S. Army in 1980 and worked his way up to the rank of Sgt. 1st Class. By the late 1980s he was attached to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland as an ordinance scholar and combat vehicle stowage and configuration expert. It was this specialization that led to his posting to a Battlefield Damage Assessment Team in 1991.
“My team and I had shot and blown up 450 vehicles before I went to Iraq, we’d hit them with everything you could name to make them tougher and stronger,” Guiles says. “When we went to war everything we had was new and hadn’t been tested in combat. Not the Bradley or the Abrams. So, I was ordered by the Department of Defense to go to Iraq to see how our stuff stood up and make sure no top-secret components fell out of our hands. During our inspections we’d also record data down to the minute details. Sometimes it would take days. We’d gauge the shot lines and relay that information in real time to the commanders.”
Upon his deployment, Guiles says he encountered dreadful discoveries during his first mission to the site of a destroyed Abrams tank.
“I could tell something was wrong from where the shot was in the back,” Guiles says of first approaching the tank. “You can’t let the enemy behind you, it’s a rule of thumb in tank combat. You never flank and you never turn your tank in a battle, you fight the enemy head-on. That made me think it was friendly fire.”
In that moment Guiles may have been the first in the military to realize the deaths of those inside was from friendly fire.
“There was a major in our group who went to go jump in the turret, but from what he saw, he dropped, hit his face on the side of the tank and threw up all over himself crawling around in the sand,” Guiles says. “That’s how bad it was inside. It was beyond description, seeing pieces of people lying around, and all I could do is sit there to figure out what’s missing. I just said a prayer and figured out what the damage was.”
The twisted metal further emitted another revelation which got Guiles’ attention.
“We had a Geiger counter with us, and it was indicating the entrance holes and exit holes of these vehicles were radioactive,” he says. “That also told me this wasn’t something fired by the Iraqis.”
Munitions and armor utilizing depleted uranium were adapted for use by the U.S. Army prior to the Persian Gulf War due to the material’s extreme density and effectiveness as a weapon. It’s created by enriching natural uranium with additional radioactive isotopes. The process makes it 60 percent as radioactive as natural uranium with physical properties of being denser than lead and prone to fragmentation or aerosolization akin to fiber glass. Used in armor, it can repel rounds fired by enemy tanks. Fired from a turret, it can slice through heavy armor from long distances and upon penetration ignite enemy ordinance by spontaneously combusting into heated particles.
Guiles says he was familiar with depleted uranium as an ordinance scholar at Aberdeen but wasn’t told the material would be used during the Gulf War. As he continued his mission in Iraq, he says he became intimately familiar with its deadly capacity.
“We went to dozens of vehicles, all of them destroyed by friendly fire, and I climbed into each one,” Guiles says. “It didn’t get easier. Each one was harder and harder.”
Guiles says one particular Abrams tank left him with scars beyond psychological trauma.
“As I got around inside I could feel my feet sliding like I was on oil, and my gloves filled up with sweat,” Guiles says. “I looked up at a thermometer we would hang up on the turret and it was 200 degrees inside. Well, it wasn’t oil I was on, the depleted uranium was still hot and melting on the floor. It was orange and molten. It got so hot I couldn’t breathe, so I peeled my protective mask off as I was coming out, but then a guy above me on the track stuck his foot on the hatch. He didn’t realize it, but he dumped contaminated water which had pooled there all over me. It happened right as I was taking a deep breath, and it went straight down my throat.”
Guiles says he stumbled off and was immediately worried.
“I was scared,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘anything but this.’ I knew from Aberdeen about all of the toxins which build up in a tank when it smolders.”
Guiles says he soldiered on through the nausea and continued his mission, crawling into more than a dozen other scenes of twisted metal. In reporting his findings, Guiles says he encountered another hurdle in the form of top-down resistance with the army.
“I reported to them the tanks were radioactive but they didn’t want to hear it,” Guiles says. “Eventually some colonel started laying into me saying ‘I’m here to teach you to read a Geiger counter because apparently you don’t know how. Everything is radioactive? Where did they get you from?’ I blew up on him! It was at that point I went from being somber and hurtful about what was happening to getting mad.”
Guiles says the situation soon escalated to the point of threats. He also received additional injuries while on other missions in the desert. After five months he left his combat tour on bad terms with his superiors and with a broken body. He retired from the army the following year due to health problems and moved to Missouri with his family in the 1990s. Medical issues have since kept Guiles from holding down a permanent job.
The account offered by Guiles is confirmed in part by a 1998 U.S. Army report titled “Environmental Exposure Report: Depleted Uranium in the Gulf.” It documents six Abrams tanks and 15 Bradley Fighting Vehicles were destroyed in friendly fire incidents during the Gulf War. It states 11 fatalities resulted from these incidents and approximately 50 casualties required medical attention. The incidents are explained as occurring due to low visibility from natural conditions and confusion brought on by a rapidly changing front.
The report details that fired munitions containing depleted uranium led to immediate Level 1 exposures for crew members in the vehicles hit by friendly fire, meaning they and their rescuers may have breathed in depleted uranium particles, ingested it through hand to mouth transfer or had it leeched in their bloodstream through open wounds. Battlefield Damage Assessment Team personnel received Level II exposures, meaning they encountered aerosolized particles while working several hours within the destroyed vehicles.
Guiles thinks his days in the destroyed tanks led to decades of health problems. He has a plastic tub full of medical documents evidencing recurrent trauma. They’re nestled in the tub alongside his military commendations and service records. The documents detail operations to remove multiple cyst growths from around his windpipe, reoccurring skin lesions and loss of muscle mass. Guiles today weighs more than 70 pounds less than his weight upon deployment to Iraq. He says he struggles daily with vision problems, loss of balance and equilibrium as well as lethargy severe enough it leaves him often unable to leave his home.
“I’ve been to every VA in the state of Missouri but the moment I mention depleted uranium and tell them my story they shut the door in my face,” Guiles says. “I just want somebody to understand. It hurts my feelings when they think I’m a liar. I don’t know what to do except tell my story. But the moment you mention depleted uranium they start referring you for mental health services because they think you’re crazy.”
The military’s official line on depleted uranium is spelled out in the same 1998 report which affirms Guiles’ exposure. It concludes no link exists between exposure to depleted uranium and health problems many Persian Gulf War veterans faced since 1991.
Guiles feels that conclusion is one of many flaws contained in the document.
“It was a fabricated effort to satisfy the general public,” Guiles says. “The data in it isn’t accurate. The damage they describe to certain vehicles isn’t consistent with what my team and I saw and the number of vehicles destroyed by friendly fire isn’t consistent with how many we investigated.”
The only official diagnoses Guiles says he’s received from the VA are for diabetes and Gulf War Syndrome. Ongoing complications have led to more than 40 medical procedures and being airlifted from Salem for emergency treatment due to kidney failure. Guiles says after years of quiet, he’s decided to speak out about his experience due to concerns a new generation will face the same problems.
“I’m speaking out now because I’m getting to a point in my life where I know I’m not going to live much longer,” he says. “I sit in here every day and think about the guys who gave their lives or have gotten sick, and how their people don’t know what really happened to them. They just know they lost them. I can’t tell you how many souls I touched out there on the battlefield. I can feel them, I can feel them now. I relive this every day, and I want to share this with people. It’s a story which should be told. Desert Storm was fierce and we gave our all. The team I served with deserves to be recognized. Some bad things happened to my fellow soldiers. Anyone who perished will always be in my heart and in my mind. May they rest in peace, and God bless our fallen. We must never forget them and their loved ones who suffer to this day. I will never forget.”