Military gave medicines, then ignored resulting ailments, veterans testify

May 07, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- In often-poignant testimony, veterans -- from World War II as well as Desert Storm -- told Congress yesterday of being unwitting medical subjects for a military they said has since abandoned them.

Speaking before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, they described numerous illnesses and other health problems that they blamed on secret experiments, preventive drugs or vaccines they were given, or exposure to environmental chemicals or other possible hazards.

Moreover, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system has either ignored them or been slow to address their complaints, they said.

World War II Navy veteran Rudolph Mills of Fredericksburg, Va., speaking barely above a whisper, told of being used as a human guinea pig during mustard gas experiments 50 years ago. He said he participated unhesitatingly because he had been "willing to do anything to help my country."

He said he received burns on his face during the experiments, and later was diagnosed with larynx cancer, a condition he believes was caused by the exposure. So far, he said, he has received no compensation from the VA, despite years of trying to secure benefits.

"In spite of all the agony the VA has put me through, I would step into a gas chamber again today if it would help preserve this great country for my grandchildren," he said, his already weak voice cracking.

"But I will never be able to forget that my government has given such shabby treatment to me and many others like me," he added. "That hurts me more than my exposure to mustard gas."

Air Force Lt. Col. Neil Tetzlaff, a Persian Gulf war veteran, told the committee that he endured uncontrolled vomiting -- and still has pain and disabling conditions -- after taking the drug pyridostigmine bromide en route to Saudi Arabia as he was instructed to do. The drug was used as a preventive agent to protect against the effects of biological weapons, such as nerve gas.

Colonel Tetzlaff said he had encountered other soldiers who experienced similar drug reactions. He said they were treated badly by the VA when they sought help for their ailments because they were unable to prove that the medications were responsible.

An estimated 20,000 of the nearly 700,000 troops that served in ** the Persian Gulf theater during 1990 and 1991 have reported an array ofdebilitating symptoms, including fatigue, skin rash, muscle and joint pain, headache, memory loss, shortness of breath and gastrointestinal problems.

Many of the troops were exposed to a variety of potentially toxic chemicals, such as fumes and smoke from oil well fires, diesel fumes, toxic paints, pesticides, and depleted uranium used in munitions and armor.

They were also given at least three drugs under special circumstances in which the military and the Food and Drug Administration waived the usual informed consent procedures because of the special battlefield conditions.

They included pyridostigmine bromide, which is licensed only for the treatment of myasthenia gravis, a chronic muscle weakness disorder; and two vaccines -- an as-yet unapproved vaccine to combat botulism and a licensed vaccine to protect against anthrax.

No one substance or organism has been identified as the sole BTC cause of the multiple health problems experienced by the men and women who served in the Persian Gulf.

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