Dec. 30, 2002
As the U.S. ramps up for invading Iraq, we should know that we are sending our soldiers into the most toxic battlefield on earth. And should they suffer the huge number of disabilities that Gulf War I vets do—118,000 out of 700,000 who served–they can expect their government, in the words of U.S. Rep. Christopher Shey (R-CN), to have “a tin ear, a cold heart, and a closed mind.”
For 11 years, more than 100,000 Gulf War vets have complained of a “syndrome” characterized by chronic fatigue, headaches, joint pains, memory loss, cancer, and birth defects. For 11 years the Department of Defense (DOD) has known the cause but systematically denied that the disabilities were anything but psychosomatic. In short, the vets are whining nuts who are faking it.
But, layer by layer, the lies have come undone. A recent study in the British Medical Journal demonstrated that British Gulf vets were three times as likely to be disabled as all other vets.
The study is hardly a bolt from the blue. The Center for Disease Control concluded back in 1995 that Gulf War vets suffered illnesses at 12 times the rate as non-Gulf vets. The only reason there is any “mystery” about the cause of Gulf War Syndrome is because the Pentagon has systematically lied about what it knew and when it knew it.
The stonewalling began before the troops even arrived in the Gulf. It started when young soldiers were adminstered an experimental anthrax vaccine that included squalene, an additive that makes the vaccine more effective, but has dangerous side effects. The vaccine itself was probably useless, because it had never been tested with air-borne anthrax, the kind used in weapons.
The DOD denies the vaccine included squalene, but a University of
Tulane Medical School study found squalene antibodies in 36 out of 38 Gulf vets suffering from the syndrome and a high incidence of disorders in vaccinated vets who never served in the Gulf. The DOD refuses to release any information on the vaccine on the grounds it is “classified.”
The Pentagon also pumped an unlicensed vaccine for botulism into soldiers, in spite of a 1990 ruling by an Army review board that use of the vaccine would be “unethical” without informing solders of its side effects. Needless to say, the soldiers were never warned, and the Army overruled its own oversight board on the grounds of “national security.”
For five years after the Gulf War was over, the Pentagon maintained that none of our troops had been exposed to chemical weapons, in spite of the fact that Army logs indicated the presence of chemical weapons on Jan. 20, 1991. When Sen. Donald Riegle (D-MI) requested those logs, he was told they didn’t exist. Eight months later the logs were finally released—with most of the pages missing.
It was not until 1998 that the DOD was forced to admit that as many as 130,000 troops ( vets say the figure is much higher) were exposed to chemical weapons following the destruction of the Iraqi arms depot at Kamisiyah.
The DOD says it never bothered to say anything about the exposure, because “scientific research and medical research do not indicate that this type of exposure is harmful,” according to Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Dian Lawhon. The Pentagon’s website still maintains that “current medical evidence indicates that longterm health problems are not likely” from such exposure.
But the Army never researched the matter, ignoring both a 1974 Swedish study and captured Iraqi documents which showed that small doses of chemical weapons do produce long-term effects.
The tragedy here is that because the Pentagon lied, the vets’ complaints were dismissed. “Because doctors were told that chemicals had not been used, many veterans were sent straight to the psychiatric department,” said Paul Sullivan of the Gulf War Veterans of Georgia. By July 1995, some 95 percent of vets seeking disability had been turned away because doctors thought they were faking it.
The stonewalling, according to the Government Accounting Office (GAO), meant that there were no monies for research. Researchers told the GAO that, as a result of the DOD’s position, “they believed it would be fruitless to request funding for such research.”
And when research was done, it was ignored. A 1997 University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center study demonstrated that the interaction of nerve gas pills (another experimental and dangerous drug given the troops), insecticides, and chemical nerve gas produced a rare disorder called “organophosphate induced delayed polyneuropathy”, which is essentially Gulf War Syndrome.
One of the ironies here is that the nerve gas pill, pyridostigmine bromide, is only effective against the chemical somin. The Iraqis never had somin in their arsenal.
With the U.S. contemplating an invasion of Iraq, this is hardly an academic issue. As Shaun Rusling, chair of the British National Gulf War Veterans and Families Assn. pointed out, “Our troops, who will be exposed to the same as we were 11 years ago, need to know that should they be ill or injured that they will get the best medical care and proper pensions.”
The track record on this side of the Atlantic suggests quite the opposite.