WORLD

Mystery illness and the Gulf War

Ailing veterans of the 1991 campaign demand compensation

WILLIAM LOWTHER,IAN MATHER August 23 1993
WORLD

Mystery illness and the Gulf War

Ailing veterans of the 1991 campaign demand compensation

WILLIAM LOWTHER,IAN MATHER August 23 1993

Mystery illness and the Gulf War

WORLD

THE UNITED STATES

Ailing veterans of the 1991 campaign demand compensation

the final two months that Paul Sullivan served in the Gulf War, he became convinced that the nightmarish environmental conditions were a far greater threat to his health than enemy soldiers. The corner of northwestern Kuwait and southern Iraq where the specialist was stationed with the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division was surrounded by blazing oil fields set alight by retreating Iraqi forces. The ground on which Sullivan and fellow soldiers slept was sodden with crude oil that gathered in puddles near the campsites. Day and night, the air was thick with black, acrid smoke from the burning wells. The haze was so dense that Sullivan recalls entire days when he could not see as far as a metre in front of his face. Declared Sullivan: “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out we were in the middle of something harmful.”

Sullivan, 30, is one of about 650,000 active duty and reserve U.S. troops who served in operations Desert Shield in 1990 and Desert Storm in early 1991. And he is among the known 11,000 veterans who say that they have developed a wide variety of unexplained ailments that U.S. TV reporters first dubbed Gulf War syndrome. Now a political science graduate student at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Sullivan has been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, chronic sinusitis and a moderate restriction in lung capacity. Tests show that he has been exposed to tuberculosis, and he has had multiple attacks of herpes causing his eyelids and ear lobes to erupt in painful swelling. But he is lucky compared with some others who say that they are unable to hold jobs and have been forced to sell their homes and exhaust their savings. Some are hospitalized, a few have died from cancers—and there is at least one case of a Gulf War veteran fathering a child with severe birth defects. In almost every instance, the soldiers are being denied disability pay because the government maintains that there is no proof that their condition is connected with Gulf War service. Complains Sullivan: “The government seems to think this all happened in outer space.”

The so-called Gulf War syndrome eerily echoes the Vietnam War-era Agent Orange controversy that has still not been fully resolved, 22 years after the notorious defoliant was last used. It took 10 years of bitter de bate and argument before the veterans affairs department finally linked Agent Orange to nerve damage and a variety of cancers.

At the forefront of the current campaign to obtain treatment and compensation is the three-million-member American Legion of armed service veterans. Its legislative director in Washington, Steve Robertson, is not only a Desert Storm veteran, he also claims to suffer from the syndrome. Robertson, 43, was a military policeman with the National Guard before being called up for four months’

duty in Saudi Arabia. Within 10 days of arriving there, he developed acute fatigue, aching joints, hot and cold flashes, diarrhea and a cough. An army doctor diagnosed the flu and prescribed antibiotics. But Robertson’s symptoms were just as acute when he returned to the United States. Military doctors told him that the sudden change in lifestyle was probably responsible, and predicted that he would soon be fit. Five months later, when he was still sick, Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center sent him to a psychiatrist. “They said my medical problems were all in my head and were due to pent-up anger and frustration at being deployed to the Persian Gulf,” says Robertson. “I told them to take a hike.” Now, 26 months after leaving Saudi Arabia, Robertson still suffers from aching joints and occasional bouts of fatigue.

Among the most common symptoms of so-called Gulf War syndrome are debilitating fatigue, diarrhea, hair loss, bleeding gums, aching joints, bronchitis, sore throat and rashes. While Robertson and Sullivan are typical of the majority of those affected, there are individual claimants who suffer even worse symptoms.

• Gary Zuspann, 33, of Waco, Texas, returned from the war reporting severe fatigue, a nagging cough, shortness of breath and muscle pain. His condition has steadily deteriorated. At first, military doctors diagnosed stress, acute depression and asthma. Since then, Zuspann has had bleeding in his spinal column and urine. Now, his immune system is so weak that he must live in a germ-free “bubble.”

• Paul Hanson of Hopemilis, N.C., has reported lingering flu-like symptoms. His son Jayce, bom within a year of Hanson’s return from the Gulf, has no arms. Hanson and his wife, Connie, have no family history of birth defects. Says Connie: “The military only get angry and say the Gulf War had nothing to do with Jayce’s condition.”

• Army specialist Michael Adcock, 22, of Ocala, Fla., died on April 23, 1992, 11 months after returning from Operation Desert Storm. He had multiple cancers. His mother, Hester Adcock told Maclean’s: “My son’s very last words to me were, ‘Mama, fight for me. Don’t let this happen to another soldier. Don’t let this be another Agent Orange.’ ”

The initial reaction of the veterans affairs department and the Pentagon was to downplay the syndrome as psychological, even fanciful. Indeed, Maj.-Gen. Ronald Blanck, commander of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, told Congress this summer that “extensive evaluation and thorough epidemiological investigations have failed to show any commonality of exposure or unifying diagnosis to explain these symptoms.”

But politicians are taking up the cause. Pledging that he “will not tolerate a Persian Gulf version of Agent Orange,” Representative Lane Evans, an Illinois Democrat and chairman of a House veterans affairs subcommittee, has introduced legislation authorizing the department to provide medical care for Gulf War veterans without forcing them to prove that their ailments are the direct result of war service. The bill has already passed

the House, is expected to pass the Senate in September and could be law by October.

The causes of so-called Gulf War syndrome remain a mystery. The American Legion provides a wide list of possible origins: fumes from burning oil wells, contact with crude oil, inoculations, pesticides that were liberally sprayed over all military vehicles in the desert, smoke from burning landfills, insect bites and poor sanitary conditions. Says Dr. Theron Randolph, a Chicago-area internist and founder of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine: “I have examined some of the Gulf War veterans and I am convinced that environmental conditions in the Gulf could be responsible for their illnesses.”

However, firefighters in Kuwait, some of the people most likely to be affected by prolonged exposure to oil fumes and other harsh environmental conditions, report no ill effects. Jarvis Jackson, operations manager of Calgary-based Safety Boss, said that none of his company’s crew members, 67 of whom spent as much as seven months fighting Kuwaiti oil fires, have complained of any medical symptoms.

U.S. and other officials are investigating another possible syndrome cause: depleted uranium. Used by the Pentagon to coat some artillery shells and tanks, depleted uranium is so hard that it protects tanks

from enemy fire and allows outgoing coated shells to smash through armor plate. However, on impact, it releases particles of radioactive uranium oxide. The defence department claims that only 62 American soldiers were exposed to uranium oxide dust and that none of them show any adverse symptoms. Still, veterans’ groups openly

worry that many more could have been exposed and are now suffering ill effects.

In Britain, a political row has broken out over allegations that the defence ministry is covering up evidence of alleged Gulf War syndrome. Last month, under pressure from opposition critics and the news media, Armed Forces Minister Jeremy Hanley admitted in the House of Commons that British troops were not properly advised about the dangers of radioactive contamination from depleted uranium shells. But he still insists that there is no evidence of a link between veterans’ ailments and their Gulf duty. More than 20 British war veterans have been treated in military hospitals, many of them for lung and kidney problems—both of which can be symptoms of exposure to depleted uranium. And a British charity, Trauma After Care Trust, says that 600 former servicemen and women have contacted it in confidence claiming to be suffering from illnesses following their Gulf service.

In Washington, Congress has authorized annual expenditures of $650,000 over the next 10 years for epidemiological studies of diseases experienced by Gulf veterans. But it is unlikely that there will be any quick cures. Said the legion’s Robertson: “I have talked with a lot of syndrome victims, and we all have this terrible feeling of neglect. Idle military seems to think that we’re after a handout. They think this is some kind of scam to get money from the government. It’s ridiculous. We only want our health back.”

WILLIAM LOWTHER

IAN MATHER