Obligatory displays of Komen pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month continue their spread beyond women’s accessories and yogurt containers into the masculine redoubts of the NFL and even the US military. While NFL players and coaches will spend the month sporting pink accessories, sailors in the South China Sea created a human ribbon to promote awareness of the disease.

Indeed, breast cancer is on the military’s radar in a big way. According to the Army Times, a study conducted at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2009 found that women in the military had a 20-40 percent higher chance of developing breast cancer. The military’s rate of male breast cancer cases is also significantly higher than that of the civilian population, where it is relatively rare and found only in older men. The Centers for Disease Control have identified a breast cancer cluster at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, possibly linked to groundwater contamination from military chemicals.

Iraqis and international public health researchers, of course, have long been aware of the link between breast cancer and the US military. Most reporting on the public health crisis in Iraq following the 2003 invasion has focused on the dramatic rise in miscarriages, infant mortality and birth defects — missing or shortened limbs, oversized heads, missing eyes and externalized organs are among the more horrifying — in Falluja, where the US is accused of having used depleted uranium munitions in two assaults on the city in April and November/December 2004. But the incidence of breast and blood cancers is also many times higher in Falluja than in neighboring provinces and the region. Recent studies have also looked at the high rates of cancer in Basra (particularly among children) and other southern Iraqi cities after the documented use of depleted uranium during the 1991 Gulf war. The World Health Organization is expected to publish a report in November on cancer and birth defects in Iraq since 1991.

This month also marks the two year anniversary of the Basra Children’s Hospital, a US Army Corps of Engineers-built facility focused on pediatric oncology. Delayed for years due to cost, poor management and the ongoing war, the project was personally championed by Laura Bush as a remedy for Basra’s staggering rate of childhood cancer, double that in the rest of the country. The provenance of these cancers was never mentioned.

The US military certainly isn’t the first or only entity to push a tone-deaf cancer awareness campaign. But the Pentagon’s consistent denial that its depleted uranium weapons cause disease (or that they were used in the first place) deserves special recognition. Just don’t make it a pink ribbon.

Photo credit: US Department of Defense

How to cite this article:

Amanda Ufheil-Somers "Tie a Pink Ribbon," Middle East Report Online, October 17, 2012.

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