The Gulf War comes home: sickness spreads, but the Pentagon denies all.
The symptoms suggest exposure to medical, chemical, or biological warfare agents, but the Pentagon denies such exposure occurred and claims it can't identify any common link among those who suffer from Gulf War Syndrome. Don Riegle, the recently retired Senator from Michigan who held hearings on the subject beginning in the fall of 1992, doesn't buy it. He believes the Pentagon may be engaged in a massive cover-up of this serious health problem.
The scale of the problem is enormous. More than 29,000 veterans in the United States with symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome have signed onto the Veterans Administration's Persian Gulf War Registry, 9,000 more have registered separately with the Pentagon, and the Pentagon's list is growing by 1,000 veterans a month.
"These are horrendous statistics that show the true scale of this problem," said Riegle last October when he released his final report on Gulf War Syndrome. Riegle condemned "the heartlessness and irresponsibility of a military bureaucracy that gives every sign of wanting to protect itself more than the health and well-being of our servicemen and women who actually go and fight our wars. To my mind, there is no more serious crime than an official military cover-up of facts that could prevent more effective diagnosis and treatment of sick U.S. veterans."
Birth defects are one of the most alarming problems associated with Gulf War Syndrome. One National Guard unit from Waynesboro, Mississippi, reported that of fifteen children conceived by veterans after the war, thirteen had birth defects. An informal survey of 600 afflicted veterans conducted by Senator Don Riegle's Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee last fall found that 65 percent of their babies were afflicted with dozens of medical problems, including severe birth defects.
Another disturbing phenomenon is the apparent transmission of the syndrome from soldiers to their family members. Riegle's study found that 77 percent of the wives of these veterans were also ill, as well as 25 percent of the children conceived before the war.
Riegle believes the Pentagon knows that U.S. veterans were exposed to chemical or biological weapons in the Gulf War. "The evidence available continues to mount that exposure to biological and chemical weapons is one cause of these illnesses," Riegle said. "I have evidence that despite repeated automatic denials by the Department of Defense, chemical weapons [were] found in the war." Riegle added that "laboratory findings from gas masks" showed the presence of biological warfare materials "that cause illnesses similar to Gulf War Syndrome."
The cover-up is not limited to the US. Government, however. Britain's Ministry of Defense is also being less than forthcoming. It has "a policy of denying Desert Fever for fear of big compensation claims," the British newspaper Today reported on October 10. A British Defense spokesperson told the paper, "We have no evidence that this illness exists." More than 1,000 out of the 43,000 British troops who served in the Persian Gulf have cited symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome.
At 3 A.M. on January 19, 1991, Petty Officer Sterling Symms of the Naval Reserve Construction Battalion in Saudi Arabia awakened to a "real bad explosion" overhead. Alarms went off and everybody started running toward their bunkers, Symms said. A strong smell of ammonia pervaded the air. Symms said his eyes burned and his skin was stinging before he could don protective gear. Since that time, he has experienced fatigue, sore joints, running nose, a chronic severe rash, open sores, and strep infections. Symms and other soldiers described several such chemical attacks to Riegle's committee in May 1994.
One of the men interviewed by the committee who requested anonymity wrote home to his mother about the attack: "I can deal with getting shot at, because even if I got hit, I can be put back together--a missile, I can even accept that. But gas scares the hell out of me.... I know they detected a cloud of dusty mustard gas because I was there with them, but today everyone denies it. I was there when they radioed the other camps north of us and warned them of the cloud."
Front-line officers assured their troops that it was not a chemical attack, that what they heard was a sonic boom. "Members of Symms's unit were given orders not to discuss the incident," says Senator Riegle's report dated May 25, 1994.
Former US. Army Sergeant Randall L. Vallee served in the Persian Gulf as an advance scout. Vallee told Congress back in 1992 that he was convinced Iraqi Scud missiles were armed with chemical or biological warfare agents. "I was in numerous Scud missile attacks when I was in Dhahran," says Vallee. "It seemed like every time I was back there we'd come under fire."
Vallee has been afflicted by at least a half dozen serious medical conditions that started shortly after the Scud attacks. He had been in "perfect health" before his Gulf War service. Vallee supported what scores of veterans have already told Congress: that after every Scud attack, hundreds of alarms signaling chemical and biological attacks would sound, to the point where they were routinely shut off and reset as a matter of course.
Vallee and other members of his detail questioned their superiors about the alarms and about the presence of chemical-warfare agents in the Gulf. "After the whole ordeal was over, we asked about it, and they said, `No, the alarms are just acting that way because they're sensitive." They gave us stories like, `Oh, it's because of supersonic aircraft' or `sand in the alarms.' There was always a story as to why the alarms sounded."
Last August, Vallee received a phone call from the Pentagon's Lieutenant Colonel Vicki Merriman, an aide to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Matters.
"She asked me about my health and my family," says Vallee. But after some small talk, "the colonel's attitude turned from one of being concerned about my well-being to an interrogator trying to talk me out of my own experiences. She started using tactics of doubt regarding my statements. She said in regard to chemical and biological agents that there was absolutely no way that any soldiers in the Gulf were exposed to anything. Her exact words were, `The only ones whining about problems are American troops, why aren't any of our allies?' And that was her exact word, `whining.'"
British Gulf War vet Richard Turnball was surprised to hear Lieutenant Colonel Merriman's suggestion that only U.S. vets complained of Gulf War Syndrome. Turnball, who lives just outside Liverpool, served eighteen years in the British Royal Air Force. During the war against Iraq, Turnball built nuclear, biological, and chemical shelters, and instructed British troops in use of chemical monitoring and protective clothing. Turnball was based in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
Turnball is convinced there was widespread use of chemical-warfare agents. "People got sick in the chest and eyes, they got infections and skin rashes," he says. "One lad had his whole body covered with spots from head to toe" soon after a Scud attack that Turnball is convinced was chemical in nature.
"Within seconds of the warhead landing on January 20, every chemical-agent monitoring device in the area was blasting the alarm. We were put into the highest alert for twenty minutes," says Turnball, "and then we were told it was a false alarm caused by the fuel from aircraft taking off."
Corporal Turnball carried out two residual-vapor-detection tests for chemical and biological agents on January 20, shortly after the Scud hit "and both were positive," he says. Field supervisors dismissed the test results, claiming that jet fuel set off the indicators. Turnball was skeptical. "We tried on umpteen occasions, when aircraft were taking off in mass numbers," he says. "We stood on the side of the runway closer to the area where the aircraft were taking off, we carried out tests, and we got no readings."
At one point, Turnball says, he was warned to drop the case, and that if he kept it up he might be subject to secrecy laws under which he could be imprisoned. "I've had a very, very senior officer friend of mine ring me up and say, `Richie, back off, you're kicking over a can of worms.'"
Before he went to war, Turnball said, he was in top condition, worked out every day, and was an avid scuba diver. Since his return, he has had twenty-four separate chest infections, and he has been forced to give up scuba diving because he "can't take the pressure below a few feet." Turnball can no longer run or swim or even take long walks. He said he has been put on steroids and uses two inhalers to help ease serious respiratory complications.
Turnball says the allies "used us as guinea pigs for new drugs" and chemical-weapons testing. He believes "probably both" chemical warfare agents and experimental drugs are responsible for his illness. "I feel we were subject to a chemical attack that affected us," he says. "As a serviceman, I can accept that, it's my job. But I believe more damage was done due to experimentation by our government. Many people got sick after taking some of the drugs. I came down with a high fever, I was sweating excessively. I actually stopped breathing a couple of times."
After three years of illness and fighting with the defense ministry, Turnball is still amazed by the denials that come out of the various bureaucracies. "We were always told that there was a 99.999 percent possibility of a chemical attack. We were expecting it. That was in our intelligence briefings. `Inevitable' was the word used. And now they deny it."
Dr. Vivian Lane has never been to the Persian Gulf and is not a wife or mother of a Gulf War vet. The forty-three-year-old former squadron leader and former chief medical officer at the Royal Air Force base in Stafford, England, said she became seriously ill after treating a half dozen "very sick" British soldiers upon their return from the Persian Gulf. Dr. Lane says she was forced to move in with her elderly parents after she could no longer care for herself. Her parents, now in their eighties, are sick and suffering from lesions "very similar" to the ones she is suffering from, she says. "Nobody in this country can tell us why or what they are."
From December 1990 through June 1991 Dr. Lane treated at least six veterans who had the syndrome. Since that time, the aviation medical specialist, a former athlete, has been in great pain. She remembers waking up at four o'clock in the morning "with a terrific, excruciating, crushing type of chest pain and abdominal pain. When I got to the toilet, I didn't know whether to sit on it or stand over it. It just got worse from there. I managed somehow to get myself down to the medical center on base. All I remember was the excruciating chest pains. Next thing I know, I'm in intensive care. My parents had been brought to my bedside because everyone thought I was going to die. They didn't know what was wrong with me."
Dr. Lane offers a different angle on the hundreds of inoculations the soldiers were given before they left for the Persian Gulf. The protective shots were issued by the fistful, says Lane, and it's a wonder more people didn't have serious reactions. "With the amount we were banging into them, I'm surprised we didn't have more people falling over. We were attacking both arms, both buttocks, and their legs to get it all into them all at once. I think anybody with that amount of injections being shoved into them all within a couple of minutes of each other, would not feel terribly well."
Dr. Lane is one of several hundred former British soldiers suing the Ministry of Defense for medical redress. She says she is not holding her breath for results, though. "Frankly, I don't mean to be nasty, but I -think they've bitten off more than they can chew."
Corporal Terry Walker was in the Persian Gulf from January to April 1991. Walker was a driver for the British Army's Fourth Armoured Brigade, First Armoured Division in Saudi Arabia. He has been sick ever since. He says his whole family suffers from Gulf War Syndrome.
In a recent interview, Walker described what he, too, believes was the Iraqi chemical Scud attack on January 20. "I was at the docks at Al-Jubayl about 2:30 in the morning," he said. "There was a couple of mighty bangs above our heads and suddenly all the chemical alarms went off and there were soldiers just running around in sheer panic, running around trying to get on their chemical suits." He says an "ammonia-like smell" filled the air after the sirens went off.
Walker, who had trouble getting his gas mask on, became ill soon after the Scuds hit. "I was feeling the burning sensation under the chin, around the back of the head as well. And ever since I've come back from the Gulf I've been ill." Walker suffers from chest infections, rashes, and headaches. Many of the people he served with were also sick after the attack, he says.
"As soon as the bangs happened, all these alarms went off and it was obvious that there was a chemical attack," says Walker, "but our superiors told us it was the jet fighters flying over with the sonic booms, and that it was also the fumes from the jets that set the alarms off."
"The thing is," says Walker, "they never went off before. The planes were flying day in and day out, and the alarms never went off at all, and on January 20, for about a ten-mile, fifteen-mile radius, these alarms went off."
Walker, who has since left the military, is furious with the military establishment in his country for "covering up what happened and the real risks" that would be faced by allied forces. "When they sent us out to fight the war, we expected them to look after us. Instead, when we came back they just tried to cover it up. They said there was nothing wrong at all because the general public would go against them if they found out about the exposures to chemical and biological warfare and how it gets into your whole family."
It is his family's illnesses that he objects to the most. "We knew there was a risk of being killed," he says, "but we didn't know that we would come back from the war so ill, and that our families would be getting sick, too. The wife has been ill since I've come back."
Walker's wife has had chronic abdominal pain and has been hospitalized at least seven times in the last three years. "She's been cut open twice but they couldn't find what was wrong," says Walker. The Walkers are extremely troubled about the health of their six-week-old child who has been plagued with a cold and respiratory problems "from day one."
Canadian legislator John O'Reilly recently raised the issue of Gulf War Syndrome in the House of Commons. O'Reilly asked the Defense Minister's Parliamentary Secretary, Fred Mifflin, what the government was doing to assist "deserving Canadians" who have been ill after serving in the Persian Gulf Mifflin responded that the veterans had been cared for by Defense Department doctors and were experiencing "no difficulty whatsoever."
If Mifflin had spoken to Canadian Navy Lieutenant Louise Richard, he might have thought twice before painting such a rosy picture. Lieutenant Richard is an active-duty medical officer stationed at the National Defense Medical Center in Ottawa, the largest military hospital in Canada. Lieutenant Richard volunteered for service in the Persian Gulf as an operating-room nurse. She treated Americans, Britons, and Iraqi prisoners of war.
After eight years of commended service, Richard will be discharged from the Canadian Navy in September because of severe illness. She suffers from many of the same medical conditions afflicting some two dozen veterans interviewed for this article: severe respiratory problems, short-term memory loss, bronchitis, asthma, and pneumonia.
When Richard began to make a ruckus over her war-related illness and threatened to take it to the media, she ran into a stone wall of official denials and intimidation. "They've basically threatened me and said, `It's all in your head, it's bullshit, don't go forward with it in the media.'" Richard says the threat from her medical superiors, whom she refuses to name for fear of further retribution, ran the gamut of intimidations. "It was the whole thing," says Richard, "your career, your pension--you know, the package."
She's frustrated at the lack of attention to the problem in Canada. "There doesn't seem to be anything happening since we're back," she says. "There's no research, no follow-up, there's nothing going on to help us." She said that she knows of many people in her position who have chosen to remain silent. "People fear to disclose anything because they don't want to ruin their pension or their career or whatever," she says. "I'm angry, because we were valued individuals when we were sent there, and now we're back, and we're not valued individuals at all. We're basically treated like mushrooms in a dark room."
Dr. Saleh Al-Harbi is an immunologist in Kuwait's Ministry of Public Health, and director of the immunogenetics unit of Kuwait University Medical Center. He says many people in Kuwait and Iran are suffering from what appear to be illnesses involving exposure to chemical and biological warfare agents.
"After the war we were getting diseases, respiratory diseases and unknown blood diseases such as leukemia, but not the typical kind, and for unknown reasons," he says. He is currently investigating with US. researchers the underlying causes of the medical conditions that have been plaguing Kuwaitis since the war. "Birth-related problems increased dramatically after liberation," he says, "and those kinds of cases have been reported to me."
He, too, is under pressure to keep a lid on his findings and concerns. "The authorities here are also standing with the Europeans, and Americans' point of view, but we believe that this is something political. I'm independent in mentioning this, and hopefully I will not get any threats from the superiors regarding this matter. They don't want the bad news and rumors to go around."
Dr. Al-Harbi characterizes the syndrome as a form of multiple chemical sensitivity, an explanation that is gaining favor in the United States as well.
Senator Riegle's report says that British and U.S. Army specialists, using sophisticated detection devices, made at least twenty tests that were positive for the presence of chemical-warfare agents. According to his report, "The Kuwaiti, US., and British governments all received reports on the discovery and recovery of bulk chemical agents."
Riegle's report also confirms that the alarms used in the war to warn troops of the presence of chemical warfare agents sounded thousands of times. In some cases, the report says, the alarms were sounding so frequently that they were simply turned off.
"The Defense Department told us at a hearing that they were all false alarms," says a former Riegle aide. "There were 14,000 of those chemical-alarm-monitoring units used during the war, and they're telling us that every time they went off, on all 14,000, they were false alarms. That's a little hard to believe."
According to a letter from Riegle to Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown, eighteen chemical, twelve biological, and four nuclear facilities in Iraq were bombed by the U.S.-led allied forces. Debris from the bombings was dispersed upwards into upper atmospheric currents, as shown by a U.S. satellite videotape obtained by Congress.
The Veterans Administration has only recently admitted that there is a problem with some "mystery illness" afflicting vets and their families. But the Pentagon denies there is any connection to chemical or biological warfare exposures.
In a May 25, 1994, "Memorandum for Persian Gulf Veterans," Defense Secretary William Perry and Joint Chiefs Chairman John Shalikashvih wrote:
"There have been reports in the press of the possibility that some of you were exposed to chemical or biological weapons agents. There is no information, classified or unclassified, that indicated that chemical or biological weapons were used in the Persian Gulf."
On June 23, 1994, the Defense Department's science board reported the results of an investigation into chemical and biological exposures in the Persian Gulf War. According to the report, "there is no evidence that either chemical or biological warfare was deployed at any level, or that there was any exposure of U.S. service members to chemical or biological warfare agents."
On December 13, 1994, the Pentagon released a report that says there was no single cause for Gulf War Syndrome. Veterans' groups were highly critical of this report. "It is more lies by the Pentagon to confuse and cover up the real causes of Gulf War Syndrome," says Major Richard Haines, president of Gulf Veterans International. In January, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences released a report critical of the Pentagon's research on Gulf War Syndrome.
Pentagon spokesman Dennis Boxx still maintains "we do not have any indication at this point that these things are transmittable to children or spouses."
Such declarations are consistent with the official British Ministry of Defense line. According to a July 14, 1994, letter from the Chemical and Biological Defense Establishment to the Pentagon's Lieutenant Colonel Vicki Merriman, "there was no evidence of any chemical warfare agent being present" in the Persian Gulf.
Ironically, when Senator Riegle first approached officials at the Department of Defense about veterans' possible exposures to chemical and biological warfare agents in the Persian Gulf, he was told by Walter Reed Army Medical Center commander Major General Ronald Blank that the issue was not even explored because "military intelligence maintained that such exposures never occurred."
While the Pentagon has refused to admit that chemical and biological warfare agents were present during the Gulf War, Senator Riegle stated on October 8, 1994, that "these Department of Defense explanations are inconsistent with the facts as related by the soldiers who were present, and with official government documents prepared by those who were present, and with experts who have examined the facts."
According to official Pentagon documents, at least eight members of the U.S. military who served in the Persian Gulf, in fact, received letters of commendation for locating and identifying chemical-warfare agents during the war. Army Captain Michael Johnson was awarded the Meritorious Service medal for overseeing the "positive identification of a suspected chemical agent." The certificate that accompanied Private First Class Allen Fisher's bronze star medal stated that his discoveries were the "first confirmed detection of chemical-agent contamination in the theater of operation."
In a memorandum dated January 4, 1994, to "Director, CATD," Captain Johnson of the Nuclear Biological and Chemical Branch of the Army wrote to his superiors: "Recent headlines have aroused considerable interest in the possible exposure of coalition forces to Iraqi chemical agents. Much of this interest is the result of health problems by Gulf War veterans that indicated exposure to chemical agents. Although no government officials have confirmed use, there is a high likelihood that some coalition forces experienced exposure to chemical agents."
Captain Johnson stated that he believed "coalition soldiers did experience exposure to Iraqi chemical agents." Johnson, who was commander of the 54th Chemical Troop, had cited in his report an example of a British soldier who was exposed. According to Johnson, "the soldier had an immediate reaction to the liquid contact. The soldier was in extreme pain and was going into shock." Captain Johnson first notified his superiors of his concerns in August 1991.
"This official dissembling and effort to obscure the facts are a continuation of Defense Department tactics," said Riegle in a written statement accompanying his October report. "The serious question remains as to why we were not provided with an official report dating from the time of the incident by the Department of Defense."
"If you look at the symptoms associated with biological and chemical contamination," says a former aide to Senator Riegle, "you'll see the same symptoms that are present in these veterans to varying degrees. The common denominator in all their illnesses is the breaking down of their immune system just as AIDS does, making them sicker and sicker as the days and years go by, and eventually incapacitating and killing some of them. And it's somehow being passed along to other people. We were getting hundreds of calls from people saying, `He brought home this duffel bag, and we opened it up, and my eyes and hands started burning, and now I'm sick. What's wrong? What's happened?'"
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|Date:||Mar 1, 1995|
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