Five years after they first reported their baffling symptoms, veterans of the crusade against Saddam Hussein say they feel vindicated by the U.S. government's growing recognition that there indeed may be a gulf war syndrome.
The past few months have seen a congressional hearing and reassurances from the White House and Pentagon that their complaints are being heard. Veterans say they are breaking through a wall of denial and only now are starting to believe that they eventually will learn what made them ill.
Recent events, however, have done little to erase a deep bitterness. Many say the government has, until recently, minimized their suffering, labeled them malingerers, delivered slipshod care and dragged them through a Byzantine process to obtain disability pay and other benefits.
"I'm feeling validated that I really am sick and there is a reason for it," said retired Army Col. Herb Smith, a Persian Gulf veteran practically bedridden with chronic pain and fatigue in his home near Frederick. "When people go around unvalidated, it makes you doubt your own sanity.
"If they had really been more sympathetic with the veterans, there wouldn't have been the outcry."
Although the federal government appears far from determining the source of the ills reported by more than 70,000 veterans, the Pentagon opened a new chapter when it disclosed recently that thousands of U.S. troops might have been exposed to poisonous nerve agents in March 1991, when Army engineers destroyed a large chemical munitions depot at Kamisiyah in southern Iraq.
The Pentagon previously denied that troops were exposed to Iraqi chemical or biological weapons, holding fast to the belief that low-level exposures could not have triggered long-term ailments when no immediate symptoms were reported.
In the meantime, the Defense Department has begun to study retired laboratory workers who received immunizations against deadly infectious diseases, including anthrax, botulism and plague. The Fort Detrick study is not specifically aimed at gulf war ailments, but could help resolve questions about the long-term effects of inoculations given to U.S. troops.
Perhaps nothing has legitimized veterans' concerns more than the Pentagon's acknowledgment that troops who served in the Persian Gulf region are suffering symptoms at a much higher rate than soldiers who did not serve there. Symptoms include chronic fatigue, memory loss, seizures, respiratory problems, and joint and abdominal pain.
The Defense Department is expanding its staff studying the issue and is funding the first major study of the long-term effects on humans of low levels of exposure to chemical weapons. Two weeks ago, Congress heard testimony from ailing veterans who put a human face on a problem that for a time seemed to have receded from public view.
One of the veterans was Julie Dyckman, a former Navy nurse from Harrisonburg, Va., who developed severe headaches, diarrhea, swollen joints and stomach pains since returning from the gulf. Too ill to work, she quit her job as a school nurse. But she has worked to ensure that the plight of Persian Gulf veterans is not forgotten.
"I'm glad to finally get some recognition that something happened," said Dyckman, 50, a Navy reservist who ran a clinic for injured troops in Saudi Arabia.
After returning from the gulf, Dyckman worked at a welcome center where she heard and reported complaints from numerous veterans who were beginning to experience medical problems. Around the same time, she began to feel sick herself.
"As a reward, I got this bad fitness report saying that I wasn't doing my job, that I was malingering and taking too much time with each vet," she said. "It was horrendous."
She said Navy and Veterans Affairs doctors initially said she had a foot problem and might have been suffering delayed effects of stress. But Dyckman found this unlikely because she did not experience health problems upon her return from Vietnam, where casualties were more numerous and conditions more stressful.
Finally, the Navy said she suffered from a neurological problem of unknown origin and granted disability pay.
"There are people out there who don't have any treatment or access to medical care," she said. "That's why I testified. It took me such a long time to get this [disability pay]. I think the rest of the veterans are entitled to this."
Like many ailing veterans, Dyckman doesn't know the cause or causes of her health problems. But she said there are many candidates: immunizations and antidotes administered to U.S. troops before the war, soot from burning oil wells, petroleum that "rained from the sky" or possible exposure to poison gases during Scud missile attacks.
Tom Hoover, 27, a former Army corporal who installed communications systems, said he went to Iraq a healthy man and returned with multiple allergies.
"I tested positive for everything -- mold, dust, animals, feathers, every kind of plant known to man," he said.
Hoover, who lives in Hagerstown, suspects that "environmental overload" caused his health problems. He, too, wonders about the oil fires and vaccines, but also about the times soldiers were ordered to burn dead sheep found along the roads.
nTC "I guess they're starting to pay attention to us now," Hoover said of the government's renewed interest. "They don't want this to become another Agent Orange."
Jim Mullen, a retired ABC technician who spent eight weeks in Kuwait City, was diagnosed with a chronic pulmonary condition a few months after returning from the gulf. Though he smoked for many years, he quit in 1986 and never had serious breathing difficulties until months after the war.
"I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn't breathe -- all of a sudden, out of nowhere," said Mullen, 63, of Annapolis. Around the same time, he collapsed while leaving a theater in Washington and was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where he was revived with intravenous prednisone, a steroid.
Today, he takes prednisone orally, uses Chinese herbs and functions well enough to free-lance for the network. Mullen is encouraged by the recent attention being paid to gulf war syndrome, which he believes came about only because of pressure exerted by the news media and veterans groups.
"It's like pulling teeth, but ultimately it will all come out," he said. "I think it's the beauty of our system."
Mark Spitzer, 28, a former Army mechanic from Silver Spring, said he would like to hear greater expressions of concern from H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the general, now retired, who commanded U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf war, and from former President George Bush. And Spitzer, who has suffered joint pain, wants to see a public outcry over the lack of government response to match the support shown for U.S. troops during the war.
Beset by fatigue, aching joints and stabbing abdominal pain, veteran Herb Smith, who helped restore infrastructure in war-ravaged Kuwait, was forced to give up his veterinary practice when he returned to Maryland.
He failed to get a firm diagnosis despite repeated visits to military and VA hospitals, though doctors initially suspected a brain tumor.
Dr. Pam Asa, an immunologist from Memphis, Tenn., contacted Smith after seeing him on a television news show. She suspected that his problem was lupus, and suggested that he get blood tests and come see her. Asa, who has treated about 50 veterans, believes his disease was triggered by immunizations given before the troops were sent to the gulf.
She says veterans stand the best chance of receiving an accurate diagnosis if they present their symptoms without raising the gulf war connection, because doctors can make an objective diagnosis without the taint of politics.
Smith says he has felt better since taking drugs that suppress lupus. But he spends much of the day in bed, too tired to do much besides sleep and watch television.
The man once called "super trooper" because of his muscular build harbors one regret: that his illness prevented him from going to Haiti, Somalia and Bosnia.
"That's what I live for, to be able to help in situations like that."
Pub Date: 12/30/96