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.

Politicians, for their part, are trying hard not to appear unresponsive; vets aren't a group you want to be seen brushing off. There have been at least half a dozen Congressional hearings. An uncounted number of advisory bodies continues to operate, and various government agencies have commissioned at least 30 separate studies. And just before last November's elections, Congress passed a bill to have the VA do what it's never done before--extend disability benefits to vets who can't be diagnosed. A vet who reports symptoms such as heart trouble, abnormal weight loss, fatigue, headaches, joint pains, or menstrual disorders within two years after Desert Shield/Desert Storm service, and who is certified by a VA doctor to be at least 10 percent disabled, will get benefits ranging from $89 to $1,823 a month.

Not that this necessarily works out quite as well on the bottom as it sounds at the top. For one thing, the VA is currently lurching toward the 1-million mark in backlogged cases; the average processing time is close to seven months. And even when (or if, considering that the VA generally rejects the vast majority of claims filed) the vets see their checks, the average $350-a-month benefit won't do much to support someone whose illness is not completely disabling, but bad enough to keep them out of a job.

Candice Roark doesn't have that problem--at least not yet. Her disability was certified long before the compensation law; it took about nine months and a letter from her senator. The VA considers her condition service-related because she went into the Air Force healthy and came out sick. But they still can't explain what's wrong with her.

Early last week, I called Roark to ask some follow-up questions for this article. She left an apologetic message saying she hadn't been feeling well. When I reached her a few days later, she explained that a few days earlier she'd gotten "this really strange feeling. It was just horrible. Kind of like my heart was collapsing. I thought it was a fluke and ignored it." Eventually the attacks started coming every 15 minutes, and Roark went to the VA, where the doctors put her on a portable monitor she activates every time she has an attack. She's been activating it a lot. "It's kind of scary," she allowed, briefly lapsing from the cheerful persona. "Of course it's good in a way, because I wake up in the morning and I think, thank God, I'm still alive. I sure appreciate the days more."

I asked a few more questions; suddenly, her voice turned thin and desperate. "Can I call you back?" When I checked later, her husband answered. She was feeling bad, but there was no need to call 911.

"When you start going to hospitals so much, they begin to doubt you," she'd said during an earlier interview. "So right now when I get [attacks], I do my best to deal with them on a mental level. My husband will lie next to me. There's times he's called in sick to be there. I just lie there and think, one of these times will be it. I don't know how often I can cross that threshold and come back." She shrugged. "I guess everyone expects, when you go into the military, to die for your country. I just don't think people expect it to be such a long, slow process."

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