When the Gulf War ended in 1991, veteran Mike Woods felt fine. Within months, however, problems with concentration and short-term memory emerged, soon followed by blackouts and seizures. A decade on, Woods is paralyzed in one leg, and while doctors have failed to diagnose his illness, Woods is pretty sure it stems from exposure to neuro-toxic chemicals during his stint in Iraq. Like many veterans of the Gulf War, Woods worries that the next group of soldiers shipped to Iraq will be similarly afflicted.
Eleven years after troops served in Iraq, experts still don’t know what caused so many soldiers to suffer the diverse panoply of symptoms labeled Gulf War Syndrome.
Some speculate that the syndrome might be the result of soldiers receiving multiple unproven vaccinations against chemical or biological attack. Some wonder whether soldiers might have been exposed to low levels of nerve agents, such as sarin gas, as American forces destroyed Saddam Hussein’s arsenals of these deadly materials. Still others suspect the sickness is the result of stress — a latter day form of “shell shock.”
Whatever the cause, activists charge that little has been done to prevent similar problems from happening again if the current crisis leads to a second round of warfare with Iraq. Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, a non-profit coalition of veterans, says that American troops receive too little training in protecting themselves against chemical and biological weapons.
A former Army Ranger who served with special forces in Iraq, Robinson says he and other vets remain angry at the toll this affliction has taken on their post-war lives, and they are unimpressed with changes since 1991. Among the gripes he and other vets cite as troops move toward Iraq once again:
A lack of urgency in diagnosing the illness and providing care to those disabled in the Gulf War.
Few improvements to the military’s ability to track individual soldiers’ locations on the battlefield in association with suspected weapons of mass destruction sites.
A failure to remove up to 250,000 defective chemical and biological warfare protection suits from the military’s active stockpile.
A failure to adapt protective gear or chemical-biological detection kits to the realities of desert warfare.
Nobody knows how many soldiers have Gulf War Syndrome, says Dr. Robert Haley, chief of the Epidemiology Division in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
“The problem is the government had a policy for many years saying that ‘there is no Gulf War syndrome, so therefore no research can measure how common it is.’ You see the circular reasoning.
Haley says his research suggests that symptoms associated with Gulf War syndrome likely are due to brain cell damage in deep brain structures caused by low-level nerve gas in combination with other chemicals.
He and others say there is no way to estimate precisely the number affected, but his own “educated guess” ranges from 20,000 to 150,000.
“I suspect the prevalence of the really sick neurological syndrome (our syndrome 2) is more like 20,000,” he says. “But again, all this is educated guess work until our survey is completed.”
Robinson and others accuse the government of sending soldiers off with equipment designed more for battles in cool European climates than in the heat of the desert.
In theory, the suits should provide protection for 24 to 36 hours, says Dr. Michael E. Kilpatrick, deputy director of deployment health support at the Department of Defense. But sweat can degrade the suits’ performance, he says.
And given soldiers’ experiences in the last Gulf War, this could be a problem. Alarms requiring soldiers to suit up would ring three to four times a day. Soldiers would then remain in the suits for hours sweating in the heat as they waited for the all-clear signal, says Woods.
Compounding these problems is the fact that much of the protective clothing going to the gulf with the troops this time may be defective. A report by the Government Accounting Office in 2002 found that the military had purchased almost 800,000 defective chemical suits. And while an effort has been mounted to recall the faulty garments, 250,000 were still unaccounted for as of July.
In addition, some reservists may be going overseas with no protective gear whatsoever. Recently the DOD checked in with some of the reserve units to document training levels and equipment, and found that some were lacking.
“Some reserve units don’t have the equipment to detect nerve agents,” Kilpatrick says. “If they’re deployed, we have to figure out how to get it to them.”
Effects of low-level exposure
Another key issue is the effect of low levels of chemical weapons. Attention has mostly focused on monitoring and protecting against lethal levels of these toxins, but it’s possible that lower doses could cause harm.
In recent reports by the GAO and the Institute of Medicine, the DOD was criticized for not making a greater effort to determine the effects of non-lethal doses of chemical weapons. Recent studies in animals have shown that there may be neurologic consequences to exposure to low doses of sarin gas.
Gulf War veterans also faced many problems documenting their exposures to toxic substances. The military does not keep good track of where individual soldiers are deployed, so it can be difficult to link illness with exposure.
With the onus on soldiers to document the association between exposures and illness, it can take years before the military is forced to take responsibility. And certainly the military’s track record is less than stellar when it comes to taking care of soldiers in the years following a conflict. Take, for example, the case of Agent Orange, the herbicide sprayed on jungle areas (and troops and civilians) in Vietnam.
Even in peacetime, government secretiveness has gotten in the way of sick veterans discovering that they were guinea pigs for the US’s own chemical weapons.
In an effort to keep better track of illnesses associated with deployment, Congress mandated that the military perform a full physical exam, including blood samples, on each soldier prior to shipping out and after returning to the United States. But the DOD has chosen to implement a different plan.
“The law says that soldiers need medical exams before and after deployment, including blood testing,” says Kilpatrick. “I think the concept looks good, but you’re talking about requiring a full exam on healthy people and when it comes to the numbers being deployed, say 100,000 or more, how do you have time to do that?”
Rather than perform a full physical prior to deployment, the DOD will hand out health questionnaires and require no further action unless a soldier notes that he is ill on the form.
The DOD’s Kilpatrick says the military can’t guarantee that soldiers won’t be exposed to biological or chemical weapons.
“That’s part of war,” he says. “We’re not going to be able to assure that everyone’s protected at all times. People die in plane crashes in training. That’s part of the risk of being in the military. There are multiple ways of getting killed.”
Woods and other veterans of the Gulf conflict see this as an unacceptable attitude. They worry, too, that when it comes to chemical and biological weapons, this war might turn out to be even more dangerous than the last.
“My own personal opinion is that Saddam didn’t have any reason to use his chemical weapons last time,” Woods says. “We were there simply to remove him from Kuwait. This time we’re coming after him personally and he’s got nothing to lose. I don’t think we’re prepared for an all-out chemical battle. And that’s what I fear we’re going to receive.”
Linda Carroll is a free-lance reporter based in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Health and Smart Money.