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Gulf War illness: Thousands who served still report mysterious symptoms

American servicemembers in the Saudi Arabian desert in 1991.

EL PASO, Texas — Army veterans Michael Patiño and David Garcia, who served in the Persian Gulf during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, say they still suffer health problems related to their service in the war.

Garcia, a retired warrant officer, began to experience unusual ailments during Desert Shield, the advance operation for the war in 1990, and was medically evacuated shortly after his unit's trek through the infamous "highway of death" in Iraq.

"I had severe post traumatic stress," Garcia said, "and I also began to experience short-term memory loss and severe fatigue. We saw literally hundreds of bodies of Iraqis on that road during the ground invasion, which took place after the bombing campaign. No one today ever saw that much death. We tried to maneuver around the bodies with our vehicles, but it wasn't always possible."

A total of 694,550 soldiers were deployed to the Persian Gulf region during the 1991 war, including servicemembers from Fort Bliss and National Guard soldiers and reservists from the El Paso and Southern New Mexico region. Gulf War-era soldiers who were not deployed to the Persian Gulf also reported similar health complaints, adding to the mystery over the source of the illness.

The Veterans Affairs Department reported that there were 148 battle deaths during Desert Storm. To address the health complaints of veterans, U.S. officials set up the Gulf War Registry, which involved self-reporting the kinds of ailments that the veterans had.

Garcia, who became a veteran advocate with the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), had two of the hallmark symptoms commonly reported by Gulf War veterans shortly after the war: short-term memory loss and debilitating fatigue.

"I still have to write things down because I forget," said Garcia, an officer for the DAV in Northeast El Paso. "We served in one of the most toxic environments ever known to the military. I managed to stick it out with these things going on until I finished serving my 20 years in the active service. Now, I act like a big brother to the new and younger veterans, helping them with their paperwork and referring to the proper agencies."

Patiño, 48, who operates the Rock House Art Gallery in Downtown El Paso, was medically discharged after 10 years of service. After more than 20 years, his flashbacks from the war have not gone away although they occur less frequently.

"I am more fortunate than some of my friends from high school who served with me, and who were around the same age when we started," Patiño said. "Six of them developed health problems and died. I've had two heart attacks, the first one when I was 29 or 30 years old."

The collection of ailments that active duty soldiers and veterans reported after the operation to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait ended in 1991 were known as Gulf War syndrome, Gulf War illness and most recently, as chronic multi-symptom illness. Other symptoms the soldiers reported were confusion, severe joint pain, lupus, Lou Gehrig's disease, depression, hair loss, multiple sclerosis, among others.

1 in 5 sick

As of March 31, the registry included a total of 145,612 veterans enrolled, said Gina Jackson, spokeswoman for the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington, D.C., or nearly one in five of those who were deployed.

Also as of March 31, there are 2,000 veterans in the Gulf War registry from New Mexico, and 2,830 veterans in the registry from West Texas, Jackson said. Initially, military and Veterans Affairs officials said the ailments stemmed from stress (post traumatic stress disorder), which irked the veterans and legislators who wanted better explanations.

"The Gulf War registry is an electronic database for veterans who meet the eligibility criteria for the registry, and who have expressed having health conditions related to an exposure to a toxic substance or an environmental hazard while in service," Jackson said. "Gulf War Veterans do not need to have health complaints to be in the registry."

"Eligible Veterans who request and or are recommended to receive a Gulf War registry exam are entered in the registry database after the exam is completed. VA tracks these veterans using the registry database and provides Gulf War information updates periodically."

Veterans Affairs did not have any data for the Defense Department civilians who served in the Gulf War and reported symptoms similar to those experienced by the soldiers.

In 2007, a Veterans Affairs report set off an alarm after it found that 73,846 Gulf War veterans had died, including 17,847 veterans who were deployed and 55,999 who did not deploy. Gulf War vets compared this figure to the 58,220 deaths of Vietnam War veterans reported by the Defense Department in the National Archives, a number that also includes deaths from accidents, homicides, illness and suicides.

Officials were quick to point out that the 2007 "Report of the Gulf War Veterans Information System" reflected health benefits for all 6.5 million soldiers who served in the Gulf and Middle East regions since 1990, and that the 73,846 deaths were of Gulf War veterans who had died from any cause, including accidents or natural causes. A recent mortality figure for Gulf War veterans was not available from the Veterans Affairs Department.

A toxic past

"I wouldn't have survived without the help of my "big brothers," veterans of the Vietnam War," Garcia said. "I think Gulf War syndrome is going to be for us what Agent Orange was for the Vietnam veterans. It took the military 20 years to acknowledge that Agent Orange was connected to the health problems of the veterans of that era."

Agent Orange was a herbicide and defoliant produced by Monsanto and Dow Chemical for the Defense Department, which used in Vietnam reportedly to destroy crops intended to feed and support the enemy. Veterans experienced cancers, nerve damage and other symptoms from the exposure to the dioxin-containing defoliant.

Over the years, the suspected culprits for gulf war illness have included the experimental anthrax vaccine and pyridostigmine bromide (anti-nerve agent) pill given to soldiers before the war, exposures to chemical agents from the bombings of Iraqi chemical bunkers, fumes from the oil well fires that Saddam ordered, and other toxins in the environments.

U.S. officials have said none of these factors are responsible for gulf war illness. Coalition forces from other countries also had soldiers who complained of symptoms similar to those of their U.S. counterparts. According to the British government's website (www.gov.uk/gulf-veterans-illnesses), troops from the United Kingdom were administered a vaccine to protect against anthrax, plague and pertussis.) The U.S. vaccine was also designed to protect against botulism.

"I remember that we received an injection called "around the world," which was a vaccine cocktail, and the pills," Patiño said. "I don't know if they caused me to get sick."

In response to concerns of French soldiers who took part in Desert Storm, the French government commissioned a health study, and the results were published in a 2006 report "Health consequences of the first Persian Gulf War on French Troops," International Epidemiological Association, which did not find clusters of complaints similar to those of U.S. and British soldiers. The French soldiers were not given the anthrax vaccine in preparation for Desert Storm, and instead were given antibiotics, French officials said.

Lawmakers

Last month, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, introduced the Gulf War Health Research Reform Act (House Resolution 4261), which give greater independence to the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illness from the Veterans Affairs Department.

Jim Binns, the RAC's chairman who recently left the post, complained that Veterans Affairs officials exerted too much control over the committee that was created to the advise the veterans agency over Gulf War illness.

More specifically, Binns complained during a Congressional hearing in March that the Veterans Affairs was blocking research into toxic exposures.

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, who serves on the Veterans Affairs Committee, said he's met Gulf War veterans with health complaints and supports the legislation.

The government has spent more than $200 million on Gulf War illness research, and it's been more than 20 years since the war ended, and veterans are still asking for answers, O'Rourke said.

Paul Sullivan, who helped write and pass the Persian Gulf War Veterans Act, said the same questions over the problems that dogged veterans after the war persist today: "Why are we ill, how can we get better, who will pay for our medical treatment and who will pay our disability benefits?"

Sullivan is a Gulf War veteran, a national advocate for veterans, and serves on the board of Veterans for Common Sense in Washington, D.C., and also supports HR 4261.

"In the long-term, veterans want what we always wanted: treatments to get better," Sullivan said. "We also want VA, Congress, and the public to be fully aware that an independent expert scientific panel, the prestigious IOM, already concluded Gulf War illness is real, it is physical, it is related to toxic exposures, and it is "not" psychological.

"So, when HR 4261 is enacted, we ill Gulf War veterans can't let the same hacks at VA implement it because they blocked the 1998 law," Sullivan said. "In addition to enacting a new law, dozens of corrupt VA officials who block research, treatments, and benefits, must get fired. That's why Congress also recently introduced HR 4031, a bill that would provide VA Secretary Shinseki with more authority to remove the top VA leaders who continue failing the 250,000 ill Gulf War veterans."

The Veterans Affairs denied the allegations.

"VA is committed to supporting research that improves treatments and diagnostic testing of Gulf War Veterans," Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Gina Jackson said. " VA does not agree with some of the statements made by Mr. Binns. However, we continue to welcome input and advice from the Research Advisory Committee to help VA achieve our goals of serving America's Veterans."
 

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