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.

According to the Riegle report, something like 12 biological, 18 chemical, and four nuclear "facilities" (whether civilian or military isn't clear) in Iraq were blown up during the war. Pentagon experts say that those bombings were too far from allied encampments to cause any danger, and that the prevailing winds went the other direction anyway. But they acknowledged that at least on some occasions, the wind was different and the troops closer than they'd calculated, and that their alarms wouldn't have detected low but toxic doses of most substances. The committee concluded that "there is substantial evidence supporting claims that U.S. servicemen and women were exposed to low-level chemical warfare agents and possibly biological agents and toxins from a variety of sources. This exposure may account for many of the Gulf War Illness symptoms."

Some doctors inside the military and the VA seem to agree. In 1993, Senator Richard Shelby, D-Ala., got hold of a memo written by Charles Jackson, a VA doctor in Huntsville who had diagnosed a Navy reservist as suffering from "Persian Gulf Syndrome and chemical-biological warfare exposure." Other vets treated by the doctor said he'd told them he was looking for a man-made virus. In another document, the commander of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, contended that "it cannot be ruled out that [chemical and biological agents] could have contributed to the illness in susceptible individuals." And even the Pentagon's own statements tend to be meticulously worded: "DoD has not said no exposures occurred," a spokesman told the Riegle committee. "What we have said is that there is no information, classified or unclassified, that indicates any use of chemical or biological weapons in the Gulf."

When Vietnam vets first started complaining about odd health problems and birth defects in their kids that they thought were caused by the defoliant Agent Orange, they were essentially laughed off; it took a decade for the VA to offer free medical screenings, and 18 years for the government to acknowledge there was a problem. Some of the "nuclear vets" taken to watch A-bomb explosions in the Nevada desert beginning in the 1940s are still waiting for compensation.

In comparison, the Gulf vets are doing well. Only two years after the end of the war, both the VA and the Pentagon, under pressure from Congress, set up hotlines offering free physicals, sometimes treatment, and continuing updates for anyone who served in the Gulf. Early on, officials estimated maybe 5,000 people would sign up. In the programs' first two years, 80,000 have.

According to preliminary statistics from the Pentagon and the VA, around 15 percent of those who've signed up say they aren't sick, but just want to be monitored. The remainder have come in with an array of complaints that includes aching muscles and joints, chest pains, seizures, weight gain, weight loss, irritability, loss of hair, diarrhea, constipation, memory loss, night sweats, menstrual problems, bronchitis, and insomnia. Various forms of cancer, as well as kidney stones, liver ailments, and heart problems were also reported along with allergies and troubles in the immune system.

Interestingly, despite the Gulf War illness's rap as a mystery syndrome, most of the vets seem to get a diagnosis pretty quickly. According to preliminary data on the first 27,000 people on the VA registry, some 85 percent of those with symptoms have been labeled as suffering from a variety of known diseases. But officials acknowledge that, without an in-depth study of individual records, that doesn't mean much: For one thing, diagnoses only describe a limited number of symptoms (a vet may be diagnosed with asthma and still not know why he has skin rashes). For another, labeling a disease has little to do with identifying its cause: Candice Roark may some day have a name for what's happening to her heart, but she still doesn't know where it came from.

Of course, she's not alone in that--a point Gulf War illness skeptics have not failed to make. "Lost in the rush to find the most quotable or pathetic victim is the notion that everybody occasionally becomes sick," noted an article in The American Spectator in May. It went on to quote Edward Young, former chief of staff at the Houston Medical Center: "We're talking about people who have multiple complaints. And if you go out on the street in any city in this country, you'll find people who have exactly the same things, and they've never been to the Gulf."

Young had a point. To date, there is no large-scale, epidemiologic study to show that Desert Storm vets are sick at a greater rate, or with something different, than civilians or soldiers who didn't go to the Gulf. Nor is there any sure way to dismiss the psychosomatic theory: Medical history is full of episodes where people developed mystery symptoms after false, but widely circulated, reports of poisonings or gas attacks. And Pentagon officials have pointed out that "mental disorders" constitute the third-largest category on the VA's list of diagnoses given to Gulf War vets; 13.5 percent were found to have psychiatric problems such as anxiety, depression, or tension headaches.

This is a chicken-and-egg situation. It's known that returning soldiers often come down with diseases principally caused by battlefield stress; "effort disease," it was called after World War I, and post-traumatic stress after Vietnam. By the same token, most anyone would get anxious, depressed, or cranky after a long bout with unexplained symptoms and unsympathetic doctors.

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