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.

The stories started surfacing soon after the war ended in a flurry of yellow ribbons and breathless commentary. A group of Navy Seabees who'd served together in the Gulf, then scattered around the country, was coming down with ugly rashes all over their bodies, accompanied by fatigue, strange pains, and fevers. Doctors speculated that the soldiers had a microscopic blood parasite called leishmania, transmitted by sand flies so tiny they can penetrate mosquito netting. But only one of the 79 ill Seabees tested positive for the bug.

Then there was the unit in Mississippi, where of 54 children born in the two years following the war, two-thirds had what news reports called "serious and unexplained health problems"--from blood diseases to breathing problems, fused fingers to club feet. Studies found no statistical abnormality, and doctors insisted there was nothing physically wrong with the kids' parents; most likely, they were having trouble adjusting to life back in the States.

Soon, soldiers were coming in to their doctors all over the country, complaining of night sweats and headaches, muscles that hurt and a fatigue so profound they couldn't make it to the grocery store. Relax, many say they were told. Take some Prozac. Get some counseling.

For those who suspected something more ominous, the first possible culprit seemed right at hand. A big part of the frenzy leading up to the war, after all, had been warnings that Iraq was armed to the teeth with chemical and biological weapons. And though the Pentagon denied that Iraq dropped anything like that on U.S. troops, returning vets talked about chemical alarms going off constantly, sending them scurrying to bunkers with their gas masks on. Some said they smelled a funny odor or felt their eyes and throats burn when an explosion took place nearby. Others claimed they saw herds of camels and goats lying dead in perfect herd formation, with an odd lack of flies around the carcasses. A few mumbled about a highly classified "Operation Desert Sword," and about secretly disposing of "contaminated bodies."

In 1993 Don Riegle, then a Democratic U.S. Senator from Michigan who headed the Senate Banking Committee, began a series of investigations into what was coming to be known as Gulf War Syndrome. He was suspicious of the official denials, Riegle said, for a number of reasons, including his long experience in Congress: "I've seen our Government lie to us in other war situations." This was shortly after the committee had learned that for much of the 1980s U.S. firms had been selling Iraq components that could be used to make chemical and biological weapons--like anthrax and botulism germs--with the blessing of the U.S. government. (Several thousand vets have recently signed up for a $1 billion class-action suit filed in Texas against some of those corporations.)

One thing Riegle and others wanted the Pentagon to explain was a report, first made public shortly after the war, that a Czech chemical-detection crew had found traces of the nerve gas Sarin during the early days of the war. The Pentagon said it didn't know what to make of the reports, but called them "credible"; for one, the Czechs' equipment was more sensitive than the hardware the U.S. military was using. (Coincidentally, a report by Congress's General Accounting Office pointed out that U.S. battlefield detectors were mostly "rudimentary," developed in the 1970s and no match for contemporary weapons.)

On the issue of chemical-weapons alarms, a Pentagon expert testified that 14,000 of them had been set up in the Gulf during the war, and most had gone off up to three times a day. They were all false alarms, the expert said, due to everything from bad batteries to smoke, fumes, and noise--an explanation that, one senator noted, at the very least meant the equipment was worthless on the battlefield.

As the committee dug further, more documents trickled out. One set of Marine Corps logs noted that intelligence "confirms the use of anthrax at King Khalid Military City. Method of delivery unknown." Elsewhere, a soldier had been treated for blisters he got while exploring an Iraqi bunker; tests found positive readings for phosgene and mustard gases. And in a particularly intriguing incident, British and American units ran a series of positive tests for mustard gas on a leaking container they'd found in Kuwait. Printouts and samples were turned over to "personnel in desert camouflage with no distinguishing patches." Those were U.N. personnel, the Pentagon responded, and a later analysis of the samples showed only nitric acid--not a warfare gas. But the American captain involved in the original incident received a medal for supervising "the positive identification of a suspected chemical agent."

There is, admittedly, something hard to swallow about the notion that Gulf vets are sick from a large-scale bombardment with Iraqi mystery weapons. For one thing, most of them didn't get really ill until after they left the Gulf, which would seem to defeat the purpose of a chemical attack. If you want, you can attribute the delayed onset to Saddam's perfidy: "What if," one VA doctor speculated to USA Today, "they had developed something so insidious it wouldn't get you until you got home?" Or you can look to other possibilities--like low-level chemical exposures from the plants U.S. and allied forces bombed in Iraq.

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