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.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of other theories on what ails the vets. One doctor in Louisiana claims to have successfully treated Gulf soldiers with high doses of antibiotics, though he doesn't know what they're killing. Some experts continue to suspect leishmaniasis, for which no reliable tests exist so far. And a growing number are experimenting with diagnoses that have also gained currency in the civilian population, such as chronic fatigue and multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS, also known as environmental illness). A doctor at the VA Medical Center in Northampton, Massachusetts, diagnosed 25 vets as suffering from MCS in 1993, and asked the VA to fund a special chemical-free unit in her hospital. Other vets have been told they have chronic fatigue, a complex of symptoms ridiculed 10 years ago as "yuppie flu" but now recognized by the National Institutes of Health and most insurers.

Both MCS and chronic fatigue belong to a complex of barely understood diseases whose symptoms are of the kind doctors can't very well pinpoint or test. Exhaustion, headaches, and nonspecific pains are common complaints; so are troubles with breathing and thinking clearly. According to one ongoing study by the Centers for Disease Control, fatigue led the list of Gulf vets' symptoms (54 percent had it, compared to 19 percent of a "control group" of soldiers who did not go to the war), followed by difficulty remembering or concentrating (46 percent compared to 9 percent), shortness of breath, skin rashes, joint and muscle pains, and headaches.

One theory holds that these symptoms may not point to any disease in the traditional sense at all--that what's going on here is not the malfunctioning of a particular organ, but a sort of low-key systemic breakdown, caused by an accumulation of things that aren't particularly lethal, but not good for you either. On that score, Gulf vets fit the bill: In the words of a National Institutes of Health panel convened last year, the "complex biological, chemical, physical, and psychological environment of the... theatre of operations appears to have produced complex health effects in the primary military personnel." Or, as Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown put it, "it was a very dirty war, environmentally speaking"--one in which, as it turns out, enemy attacks may have been the least of the troops' worries.

To start with, the NIH panel noted, soldiers were stationed in an area of temperature extremes and desert winds, blowing sand particles so tiny they could lodge deep inside a person's lungs. They worked long hours, often breathing in fumes from fuels, cleaning agents, and fires. Tents were heated by diesel and kerosene stoves; trash, from plastic bags to batteries, was thrown onto piles and burned nearby.

Soldiers got shots and pills--vaccines to inoculate them against they didn't know what, tablets against chemical-warfare damage. Some popped them like aspirins, especially when the alarms went off. Some of the drugs, though used experimentally before, weren't approved by the FDA for general use. After the war, scientists found that in combination with certain pesticides--like those sprayed on soldiers' uniforms, tents, and blankets--the anti-nerve gas pills could produce chronic fatigue and other problems "similar to the symptoms of some veterans."

Then there were the oil wells that burned, some 600 in all; one vet told Congress the haze got so thick he could barely see his hand in front of his face. Pentagon studies provided little reassurance by pointing out that the smoke was no worse than the exhaust from "a badly-functioning automobile." There were the weapons themselves, like depleted uranium, a form of nuclear waste used to make shells and coat tanks. The Pentagon has been studying 35 soldiers who it says got attacked by "friendly fire"; 22 of them had depleted uranium shards in their bodies. Many more may have been exposed while handling or repairing equipment and munitions.

What's more, despite the bravado they presented on TV, soldiers were predictably terrified a good part of the time. The Riegle committee's report contains excerpts from a "Dear Mom" letter written at Camp 13: "I can deal with getting shot at," it begins, "because I can fight back and even if I got hit, I can be put back together. A missile, on the other hand, doesn't work like that, but I can even accept that. But gas scares the hell out of me. I know how to put on the protective suits and gear, but it's the thought..."

And finally, things didn't necessarily get easier when the troops came home. The country was in the depths of a recession; according to the American Legion, many National Guard and reserve troops found their jobs going or gone, while active-duty personnel were let go in Pentagon cutbacks. Those who got sick lost their jobs even faster, and got even sicker after that.

Almost five years after Operation Desert Shield began, it's anyone's guess what the ultimate collateral damage may be. A few vets have died, with their families blaming the war and doctors scratching their heads; many more have only minor problems. Most of the fuss has been in the U.S., though British, Canadian, and Australian soldiers have also complained of symptoms; there is very little health data from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. And while there are some 22,000 U.S. troops stationed in the Gulf now--President Clinton just upped the deployment earlier this year amid noises that the shooting could start again--the Pentagon says it's received no reports of uncommon illness from them.

« Previous Page
Next Page »