Are they the small casualties of war?

October 10, 1994|By Anna Quindlen

TWO BABY boys, born many miles apart. Michael was apparently healthy except for the strange sweats that drenched his clothes and bedding. His mother thought of him as a fussy baby because he nursed so often, slept so little, and wanted to be held so much. He died in November, age five months. An autopsy showed a mitral valve defect that had caused his heart to swell several times its normal size.

Cedrick was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, missing an eye and an ear, his heart on the right side of his body, his trachea and esophagus connected.

People gasped and turned away when they saw him in the cart in the supermarket. He is 2 and has had eight operations so far.

Two baby boys. What do they have in common? Both have fathers who served in the Persian Gulf. And therein lies a cautionary tale.

It may turn out to be a story of chemical exposure and inadequate monitoring. But at the very least it illustrates how tenuous the credibility of the military has become on matters of occupational health.

The rallying cry of those who believe the war in the gulf made soldiers and their dependents sick harks back to Vietnam, and the military's last large-scale effort at medical deniability. Over and over again they repeat, "Not another Agent Orange."

Michael's mother, Melanie Ayers, and Cedrick's father, Stephen Miller, both believe their sons are casualties of war. Ms. Ayers says that around Fort Bragg, N.C., she knows of many miscarriages, several stillbirths and the unusual deaths of several babies, including a little girl born without a spleen and a baby boy with liver cancer.

Stephen Miller, a nurse at an Army hospital in San Antonio, says he has been told that the syndrome that caused many of his son's problems is a product of either heredity or chemical or radiation exposure. He and his wife underwent genetic testing. Nothing.

Thousands of gulf war veterans themselves complain of a malady with various symptoms: persistent headaches, rashes, nausea, chronic fatigue and body aches, as though they have the worst sort of flu.

Military doctors at first said their symptoms had nothing to do with the war. One man was told that his rash was age spots, his low red blood cell count a dietary deficiency, and his hacking cough a function of pollution. Others were told they were suffering from stress.

Soldiers think the answer is less mysterious. In the gulf they were given experimental drugs to combat nerve gas. Pesticides were applied to skin and uniforms.

An Agriculture Department scientist, Jim Moss, has been working on research suggesting that the toxicity of the insect repellent DEET increases dramatically when combined with the nerve gas agent. Mr. Moss says he was told to drop the research; when he wouldn't comply, he was fired.

Kelli Albuck, whose husband is disabled with the symptoms of what is now called gulf war syndrome, testified before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs that she and other wives had developed pelvic infections and pain during sex because of semen so toxic that it causes irritation, even blistering for both husband and wife. "Shooting fire," the women call it.

The Albucks, like the Ayerses and the Millers, have one healthy child, born before the gulf war. Since then, Kelli has had two miscarriages and given birth prematurely to a son with, among other ailments, cerebral palsy and spinal meningitis.

Congress recently allocated money for research into what's RTC happening to gulf war soldiers. But the legislation specifies that the research must be farmed out to independent researchers, not done by the Defense Department. The reason is apparent: There is little confidence that the military can investigate itself, or that its conclusions would be believed.

"WHY ARE WE SICK?" read the headline on a chilling package of stories in The Air Force Times, which said that some soldiers were waiting to have children until the gulf war phenomenon had been adequately explained. And the military has some explaining to do.

With warfare changing so radically, why has the Pentagon been unable or unwilling to deal quickly and convincingly with the possible effects of chemical contamination?

Perhaps it will turn out that the war caused neither Michael's death nor Cedrick's birth defects.

But one injury is certain, and that is the blow dealt to the military's credibility among many of its own people.

Anna Quindlen is a syndicated columnist.

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