Returning Vilseck troops get depleted uranium questions
Editor’s note: Stars and Stripes reporter Rick Scavetta is embedded with the 94th Engineer Battalion, a Vilseck, Germany-based unit that has returned from Iraq after a yearlong deployment. This is the third in a series of articles on the soldiers’ return to Germany.
VILSECK, Germany — A questionnaire on troops’ exposure to depleted uranium raised a few eyebrows this week as engineers returning from Iraq began their second day of the U.S. Army Europe reintegration program.
The survey was one part of the medical session, during which soldiers from the 94th Engineer Battalion also gave blood samples for HIV screenings and received tuberculosis skin tests.
The series of questions on depleted uranium read somewhat like this:
• Were you near an armored vehicle that was struck by depleted uranium?
• Were you in or near an Abrams tank when it was hit with depleted uranium munitions?
• Did you routinely enter vehicles with depleted uranium dust to perform maintenance, recovery or intelligence gathering?
Most of the soldiers checked blocks stating they hadn’t encountered any of that. But the survey brought questions about why the military was asking.
“They’re trying to figure out their liability so they don’t get sued down the line,” said Spc. John Wissinger, 34, of Denver. He said he was around burning vehicles in Iraq but wasn’t sure what type of munitions set them afire.
After the checklists were signed, the engineers took off their uniform tops and lined up, each holding a glass vial. Medics from the Vilseck Health Clinic, augmented by soldiers from a stateside Reserve unit, worked the needles.
Just a few combat veterans winced at the flash of blood entering the small tube. Most were content to do whatever the Army asked so they could go about their personal business.
“B.B. Bell says do it, so we’ve got to do it,” said Cpl. Stanley Osinski, 24, of Boston.
Meanwhile, the engineers discussed taking advantage of some exclusive offers for returning troops.
For example, the bowling center on base offered three free games. A local cantina donated a large cappuccino and 24 minutes of free Web surfing. The coffee was a great idea, but the Internet was “no dice,” said Spc. Donald Bunn, 25, of North Hampton, Ohio. “They said it wasn’t working.”
Most troops shrugged at the 20 percent off purchases at the Arts & Crafts Center, but the free hour at the auto shop would come in handy for tuning up cars left in storage for a year.
For those without cars, the base outdoor recreation program gave out mountain bikes for the first week back.
The travel company on post gave $10 off the entrance fee to Neuschwanstein, one of Bavaria’s most famous castles. Unfortunately, the offer was good only until Jan. 25.
Troops joked about their blood samples — many of them have been partying each night since their return.
“I’m hung over and had about three hours of sleep,” said Spc. Ethan Coder, who added that the mandatory training was “like a wedge that doesn’t fit.”
Soldiers talked about how one soldier already was charged with driving under the influence. A couple of fights broke out in the barracks, but nothing serious.
Pfc. Eric Schrobilgen, 19, of Dubuque, Iowa, sported a small shiner near his right eye, but could not figure out how he got it. His first night back, he drank vodka and some beers. Sometime later he fell in the woods on post, possibly the cause of his injury. He slept most of the next day and was feeling fine, he said.
Female soldiers joined the partying, but had to fend off advances from fellow troops, said Pfc. Amanda Jackson, 19, of Roanoke, Va., who stayed up all night at her barracks in nearby Grafenwöhr. At one point she cried, she said, because her boyfriend in Vilseck had not come to see her. But she joined in and drank some wine.
Her friend Stephanie Meade, 22, of Chestertown, N.Y., drank heavily and called her mom, she said. Engaged to a Marine at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Meade also found herself turning away drunken guys, she said.
Back in Baghdad, guys would use awful pickup lines such as, “Hey, where’s that unit patch from?” Or, “Let’s go take a walk.” Back in Vilseck it was more direct, Meade said. They would simply ask, “You want to see my room?” “You feel sorry for them,” Meade said. “They are so pathetic.”
While the nights may be for revelry, the days are reserved for business.
During the week of half-day sessions, each troop carries three photocopied pages titled USAREUR Individual Reintegration Checklist. The lengthy list of sections is divided up in typical military fashion, with line items labeled by category — 2.1.10 and 2.1.11, etc. Each corresponds with mandatory tasks.
Soldiers need a sign and stamp from officials after each day’s sessions to prove that the troops received training.
Supervising the checklist collection was Sgt. Alberto Blanco, 27, of the Bronx, N.Y., who returned from Iraq early because of a death in the family.
Blanco, who underwent a similar reintegration program, knows his returning comrades have other things on their minds.
“I’m just making sure they do the right thing,” Blanco said. “This is a USAREUR requirement. If they don’t fill out everything, they can’t go on leave.”