Collateral Damage

Candice Roark was a healthy 20-year-old when she was sent to the Persian Gulf in 1991. Now she has a pacemaker, fainting spells, and a lot of unanswered questions about what made her and thousands of other soldiers sick.

On September 2, 1993, Candice Roark's heart stopped. She was in a hospital bed, hooked up to a monitor to see why she was blacking out three or four times a week. Suddenly the line on the screen fluttered and went flat. Medical staff later told her they thought one of the electrodes had come loose; it took them a while to figure out she was, legally speaking, dead for about 10 seconds. "I even had one of these strange dreams, with white light and everything," she says with an awkward smile. "I don't normally tell people this, because when people say it on TV it sounds really crazy."

Roark has reason to feel sensitive about being called crazy. Doctors suggested as much when she first came to them, a 20-year-old Air Force mechanic fresh from the Gulf who complained of fainting and breathing trouble. She had a psychological condition, they told her. It would go away. Later they talked about her period, stress, tropical diseases. One day, she says, a doctor at the VA suggested that what she had "looks just like Gulf War Syndrome. Were you over there?"

Almost 700 local Gulf War vets have signed up for a VA registry to monitor illnesses arising after Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Nationwide, the number is up to 80,000 vets and active-duty troops, or about 10 percent of the 700,000 U.S. soldiers sent to protect the oil fields almost five years ago.

The vets' symptoms are of the vague yet unrelenting variety that characterizes contemporary mystery diseases: fatigue, headaches, rashes, pains. Some got sick after a rocket exploded near where they were stationed, others after taking experimental drugs. Some didn't develop symptoms until after they came back. Pentagon officials say they don't know of anything in the "clean little war" that should have caused mass sickness. Doctors say they can't pinpoint one disease, let alone its origins. For that matter, it's not even clear the vets have something civilians don't--which is reassuring only at first glance.

When Saddam Hussein's troops first massed on the Kuwaiti border in the fall of 1990, Roark was stationed at Zweibrucken, Germany, with the 26th Equipment Maintenance Squadron. Her dad was a Marine and she'd signed up right out of high school. Her physical condition was certified as "excellent" when she went in. The only health problem she'd had was low blood sugar as a child.

At the German base, mechanics cleaned the equipment with a component called methyl ethyl ketone, a nerve toxin you're supposed to use with gloves, a mask, and an apron. "We were just dipping our hands in it, up to our elbows," Roark remembers. She passed out a few times from the fumes, but didn't think much of it.

She volunteered for the assignment to the Gulf and ended up with an Army unit a few miles from the Kuwaiti border in Saudi Arabia. They worked 12 hours a day, plus guard duty, and slept 18 to a tent. At night someone would bring out a "really trashy love novel," and read it aloud to a chorus of whoops, grunts and oinks. She remembers it all as rough, scary fun.

Christmas eve, Roark and some others were going from tent to tent caroling when one of the Army guys came to say an Iraqi attack was expected, and everyone tried on gas masks. Roark's didn't fit. A guy offered her his, but she declined. She was "really, really scared. I had guard duty, and I kept thinking, I'm going to die tonight." The next morning they heard the attack was called off, and Roark got a good gas mask.

A couple of weeks later she began getting "these really strange chest pains. And blackouts. They helicoptered me over to a MASH unit because I kept passing out." Routine tests didn't find anything physically wrong with her. "They forwarded me to another MASH unit. There they told me they couldn't send me back because I had a psychological condition. They said they were under strict orders not to release anybody out of that country with a mental problem."

Eventually, the medics discovered that Roark was two months pregnant. She was sent to a base in Turkey, where she delivered her son in August 1991; 16 months later her four-year tour ended with the rank of sergeant and a dozen awards.

But the chest pains and fainting spells continued. She almost quit driving, worried she'd pass out at the wheel. Military doctors still couldn't find anything wrong, and Roark tried to will herself well. "I kept thinking, if I want to be healthy so bad, why is my mind still doing this to my body? I would run, and exercise, and a lot of times I would still get these pains and I'd end up just lying there."

It was at a civilian hospital, Trinity Medical Center in Dallas, that her heartbeat flatlined on the monitor. Doctors put in a pacemaker the next day; she was 22. The pacer has kept her going since, though she still has attacks in which she can't breathe, along with coughs and unexplained fevers.

Roark's story isn't as dramatic as those of some other vets. She's working full time as a stockbroker; her son's healthy, and she has enough energy left over to take night classes preparing for medical school, where she hopes to study cardiology. But there's a hint of terror beneath her exuberance; it surfaces briefly when she talks about another vets she's met, with symptoms like hers, who got referred to psychiatrists. It gave her the idea of starting a vets' network, named Alpha Projects after a concept she learned in psychology class: "There are two basic mistakes a doctor can make when a patient comes to him. The beta error is that the patient is not sick, but the doctor treats him anyway. The alpha error is that the patient is sick, but he doesn't get treatment. The alpha error is the most dangerous kind to make."

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