Veterans ask if gulf illnesses could happen again in Iraq

Questions raised about health risks, protection

January 13, 2003|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

It has been 12 years since the Persian Gulf war and Steve Robertson still can't explain his aching knees and ankles, his sometimes terrible mood swings and his trouble remembering things.

Maybe it was exposure to chemical agents or the pills he took to protect against them. Perhaps it was the anthrax vaccine he received or the smoke he inhaled from landfill fires near where he was stationed in Saudi Arabia. Maybe it was a combination.

"That's going to be a question mark in my mind for the rest of my life," said Robertson of Falmouth, Va., who served as a military police officer in the Army National Guard and is now on retired reserve.

After spending $213 million in the past decade sponsoring 224 medical studies of the mysterious health problems of gulf war veterans, federal officials have come up with this explanation: Something happened, but they don't know what.

Now, with the buildup of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf once again, questions have emerged about whether the military is ready to protect its soldiers from potential health threats in the region.

"If we don't learn from [the] history of the gulf war, we're going to repeat it, God forbid, in this next situation that may come up," said gulf war veteran Steve Smithson, a member of the Department of Veterans Affairs' Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses and head of the American Legion's Persian Gulf task force.

Symptoms, causes

The difficulty is in trying to prepare for - and prevent - something that is not understood. In addition to possible chemical and biological agents, a range of potential health hazards have been studied as possible causes of gulf war-related illnesses, including oil well fires, depleted uranium munitions, pesticides, vaccines against infectious diseases and anti-nerve gas tablets.

For years, the government explained away the wide range of symptoms, collectively known as "gulf war syndrome," as stress-related. Some frustrated veterans were told that their problems were all in their heads.

Despite the battle over medical diagnoses and disability benefits, consensus now exists on at least a few points: that gulf war veterans have reported far more symptoms than veterans of other conflicts - two to three times more - and that those symptoms are real.

But while some researchers have suggested that the symptoms are caused by brain damage resulting from exposure to low levels of chemical agents, the Defense Department has not pointed to a single cause, instead classifying many as "unexplained."

"We can't prove that these things aren't due to something they were exposed to in the gulf," said Dr. Francis L. O'Donnell, a medical consultant at the Pentagon who has tracked gulf war illnesses.

Preparedness

Military officials say that, since Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the Defense Department has introduced improved protective masks and clothing, including a new lightweight suit designed to be less cumbersome, as well as more reliable chemical detectors. It is also requiring inoculations against smallpox - even though the vaccine can pose health risks.

But a report in the fall from the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that "serious problems" persist in biological and chemical weapons preparedness.

The report said the military doesn't have enough protective suits and risks a worsening shortage; in the past few years, hundreds of thousands of defective suits have had to be destroyed. The Pentagon's inspector general testified before Congress in October that the military had only 5 percent of the specialized shelters needed to provide treatment to troops in the event of a biological or chemical attack.

Col. Erik Henchal, commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, in Frederick, said last week that the military is not prepared to defend against some lethal toxins that are thought to be part of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's biological arsenal.

O'Donnell said that efforts to protect troops' health have improved since the gulf war in everything from record-keeping to communication.

The military has gotten better at "medical surveillance," or collecting baseline health information on its troops, he said. That was not the case with the gulf war: Military officials have not been able to say with certainty which soldiers received the anthrax vaccine or took PB, or pyridostigmine bromide, anti-nerve gas pills.

"The idea is just to monitor the health of the force," said O'Donnell. "It just was done on a spotty basis during the gulf war. I think that lesson has been taken very seriously."

O'Donnell said the military has stepped up its "environmental surveillance," scrutinizing areas for potential threats ranging from air and water pollution to malaria. All soldiers are to be given a "medical threat briefing" before they are deployed.

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