Gulf War Illnesses Debate Rages On for 18 Years: No End in Sight for the Sick

Thursday 19 March 2009
By Thomas D. Williams, truthout | Report

 

Barack Obama is now the fourth president facing the scientific and bureaucratic conundrum around the US-created ongoing wartime hazards producing disastrous health complications for soldiers and civilians.

Eighteen years after the six-week first Gulf War, maladies still haunt thousands of US and allied service members as well as estimated hundreds of thousands of Iraqi, Kuwaiti and Afghan civilians. A myriad of scientists and government officials insist it is bewildering to pinpoint whether countless chemical and radiological hazards either killed or sickened hundreds of thousands of US service members, allied soldiers and Iraqi, Kuwaiti and Afghan civilians. Federal health officials have not only denied monetary and health assistance to thousands of veterans, whose illnesses they say cannot be linked to US created wartime hazards, but they have mostly failed to assist the Iraqi, Kuwaiti and Afghan civilian health system.

"Our war (the first Gulf War) was the most toxic as far as exposures ever in history," said Denise Nichols, a retired US Air Force registered nurse and veterans' advocate, who herself suffers from wartime illness. "How can parents or the American citizens trust their government or encourage their young to enlist when this history of neglect and denial of gulf war illness is allowed to fester … [the US Department of Veterans Affairs] has betrayed us. [The Department of Defense] has betrayed us. The government for 17 years betrayed the trust we as soldiers, airmen, marines, or sailors had, and our trust must be regained by [incoming President Barack Obama]."

Medical records show Melissa Sterry, 46, a New Haven, Connecticut, resident, who cleaned up radioactive depleted uranium dust in tanks during the Gulf War, has post-traumatic stress, chronic headaches, upper respiratory infections and repeating pneumonia. The former US Army specialist also has three types of irregular heartbeats, muscle fatigue and spasms, joint aches, chronic diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and blood in her urine and stool. More recently, she suffered through a double mastectomy for breast cancer. "I don't want to be disabled," Sterry said, reacting to her extended battle with Veterans Affairs (VA). "I want to get off it. I'm telling them, 'Fix me!"'

Unemployed since leaving the military, Sterry has, at times, had trouble dressing herself and paying for food and a roof over her head. Today, Sterry is increasingly upset because Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell defunded the first state law nationwide forcing the tracking of sicknesses in Gulf War veterans. It was Sterry who single-handedly lobbied it into being at the Connecticut State Legislature. Federal officials, she said, were totally ineffective in detecting and treating deadly health effects of everlasting radioactive depleted uranium dust spread for hundreds of miles in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan.

Cover Ups of Wartime Hazards' Connections to Illnesses

On various occasions since 1991, veterans, Congressmen and government entities, including the US General Accountability Office (GAO), have accused federal agencies, committees, Congress and three past presidential administrations of either covering up, obfuscating or ignoring solutions to Gulf War Syndrome. Informed critics found scores of Pentagon and US Department of Veterans Affairs inquiries inadequate or worse. Initially, in the mid 1990s, Walter Reed Army Medical Center's officials tried to pin some of the blame for continuing illnesses on veterans' alleged psychiatric stress. That medical composite was ultimately discredited by scientific critics, in part because the war lasted only weeks, and more significantly, because the diagnosis was completely inappropriate for most veterans examined.

So, they were sent to war. They became physically ill. They went to the doctor. But, ultimately, despite being physically ill, physicians were telling them: "Your mind is imagining that you are sick." Back in 1996, George C. Vaughn, then 34, who said he was exposed to chemical warfare and a host of other war hazards, was given an Army disability for physical ailments that was later rescinded. At the time of his "mental" illness diagnosis, he said, "I feel like I have been stabbed in the back by my country. I feel like I don't trust the doctors at Walter Reed any more and I don't trust the whole process."

Frustration for ailing veterans unable to get federal health assistance has carried on through for thousands taken ill during the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, Veterans For Common Sense recently said the VA figures show that: "The number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans receiving treatment at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities sky-rocketed from 13,000 to over 400,000 in the last four years."

As medical claims mount, this month, the VA conceded to a US House of Representatives' subcommittee that scores of veterans' medical complaints and supporting documents at the VA offices in Detroit, Michigan, St. Louis, Missouri, Waco, Texas and St. Petersburg, Florida, were shredded before they could be evaluated. The VA inspector general's inquiry into the destroyed documents is ongoing. Michael Walcoff, a deputy VA under-secretary for benefits, called the actions "clearly unauthorized and inappropriate."

Meanwhile, little or no professional health assistance is being offered to untold numbers of seriously ill Iraqi, Kuwaiti and Afghan civilians, even as the wars in those countries continue to nauseate and/or kill tens of thousands more. In the first war alone, estimates of Iraqi deaths range from tens of thousands to more than one hundred thousand. In the meantime, during that first Persian Gulf War, untold hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis became afflicted from hazardous exposures or were wounded. Several small US organizations, frustrated by lack of federal support, have struggled to help Iraqi doctors and hospitals care for overwhelming legions of the sick civilians. Yet, former President George H.W. Bush proclaimed the US armed service members were duty bound to protect the Iraqi people.

Two Presidents, Father and Son, Say Iraqi People Are Paramount

"Our role is to help our friends in their own self defense… And let me make it clear that the United States has no quarrel with the Iraqi people. Our quarrel is with Iraq's dictator and with his aggression," said the senior President Bush, in a speech to Congress on September 11, 1990.

His son, former President George W. Bush, later insisted: "America is a friend to the people of Iraq. Our demands are directed only at the regime that enslaves them and threatens us. When these demands are met, the first and greatest benefit will come to Iraqi men, women and children."

Bush's promised benefits didn't bind for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis sick from wartime exposures. Prior to her death from leukemia in September 2004, Nuha Al Radi, an accomplished Iraqi artist and author of the "Baghdad Diaries" wrote: "Everyone seems to be dying of cancer. Every day one hears about another acquaintance or friend of a friend dying. How many more die in hospitals that one does not know? Apparently, over thirty percent of Iraqis have cancer, and there are lots of kids with leukemia."

Here's an outsider's reaction to the state of Iraqis' health as a consequence of the 18 years of US-Iraq conflicts. "When I visited Auschwitz I was horrified. And when I visited Iraq, I thought to myself, 'What will we tell the children in fifty years when they ask what we did when the people in Iraq were dying?'" asked Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, according to Citations de personnes eminente.

Last November, the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses (RAC) created glimmering hope for some war veterans. The committee's voluminous findings were among the first to pierce some alleged mysteries of chemical hazards causing Gulf War illnesses. But the report, like most all federally funded others, was targeted only to help sick US war veterans and their immediate families.

Dr. Lea Steele, the RAC's scientific director, said, "We are familiar with the types of information concerning health problems in Iraqi civilians after the Gulf War, and since the current Iraq War, some of which is referenced in the report. There are also reports of health problems among Kuwaitis after the Gulf War. Although not specifically addressed by the RAC, the health consequences of these wars on local civilians are a serious concern. We were disappointed to find that there have been no assessments of which of the many different environmental exposures and other wartime hardships may have caused and/or contributed to the difficult health situation in Iraq."

Nick Shapiro, a spokesman for President Barrack Obama, said the impacts of Gulf War illnesses are a significant concern. But Shapiro deferred observations on all reporting questions to the VA. Shapiro did not comment on the past failures of federal authorities to assist foreign civilians sickened or killed by wartime illnesses.

Government statistics say 13,194 Gulf War, US military service veterans have died since the January 1991 to February 1991 conflict. Those same figures reveal the average age of service members going to the war was between 30 and 32 years old. Eighteen years later, or today, their average age would be 48 and over. That era and younger is normally too early for death to strike. And, now, one in every four of the 696,842 Gulf War service members is still ill, some terminally, said the VA.

Since contemporaneous US Army air, water or soil tests conducted throughout active battle zones were largely inconclusive, it is difficult to say exactly who was exposed to a given hazard at any particular point in time. But, later, in 2003, preliminary tests by the Uranium Medical Research Center showed that (their collected Iraqi) air, soil and water samples contained "hundreds to thousands of times" the normal levels of radiation (left by depleted uranium munition explosions), according to Countercurrents.org.

"One of the Dirtiest Environmental Conflicts in History"

Clearly, substantial corroboration exists proving that hundreds of thousands of service members were exposed to smoke from the overwhelming oil well fires and constant wind-blown dust, containing multiple hazardous chemicals like nerve gas and radiation from exploding munitions. Gulf War I has been called one of the dirtiest environmental conflicts in history. Adding more risk to those dangers, there is no doubt service members were forced to take risky US drugs and vaccines supposedly aimed at protecting combatants from some of the predictable wartime contaminants.

The indicators of sickening or life-threatening exposures could be and have been reproduced. A multitude of eyewitnesses observed the daily smoke and dust, darkening the air. Many of the 100,000 in the vicinity knew or eventually discovered they were exposed to wartime nerve or mustard gases when the US military blew up Iraqi chemical bunkers in March 1991 near Khamisiyah, Iraq, or when wartime gas alarms sounded. (Yet, servicemen learned much later that their US gas masks and other protective equipment were proven to be inadequate.) And, finally, and undoubtedly, most service members inoculated or ordered to take anti-nerve agent pills and vaccines are themselves eyewitnesses to their adverse reactions to those forced controversial drug regimens. Unfortunately, many US military inoculation records have since mysteriously disappeared, eliminating corroborating evidence.

Despite overwhelming indicators of wartime hazards, "The Presidential Advisory Committee's (1997) final report concluded that many of the health concerns of Gulf War veterans may never be fully resolved because of a lack of data," as cited in GAO/NSIAD-97-136. The very same GAO report said: "according to the Department of Defense officials we interviewed, the Persian Gulf War medical records are widely recognized as incomplete and inaccurate in documenting all medical events for service members while deployed to the Persian Gulf." The report continued: "In researching the Persian Gulf War illnesses, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the (PAC) reported that inaccurate information on the location of service members in the theater presented problems in identifying exposures to various health threats."

In November, the RAC's 14-member panel of doctors, veterans and their advocates, like legions of others including the PAC, brushed aside some of the war's health threats with inconclusive findings. They did call for further inquiry, just like those countless others have since the early 1990s.

Almost immediately, the VA sent the committee's work on to be evaluated by still another well-known health organization, The Institute of Medicine (IOM). Yet, the IOM has consistently depreciated connections between veterans' sicknesses and most all of those same deadly wartime hazards. Indeed, the IOM is heavily criticized for inconclusive scientific findings in the RAC report itself.

IOM Did Not Link War's Hazardous Exposures to Vets' Illnesses

On January 23, two months after VA Secretary Dr. James B. Peake called for the evaluation, IOM President Dr. Harvey Fineberg answered it. Fineberg said the IOM agrees with the RAC that Gulf War veterans have "multi-symptom illnesses" at higher rates than those veterans not sent to the war. But, he explained, the IOM never linked the constantly sick veterans to specific exposures. That was in part, he said, because of the lack of scientific reliability of such conclusions, particularly the weakness of self-reported veterans' symptoms and exposures.

The Pentagon, unlike the RAC and many sick veterans and dozens of their advocates, apparently believes in the IOM's integrity. "There is no question that symptoms in 1990-91 Gulf War veterans are real and are deserving of care and treatment," said Michael E. Kilpatrick, director of Military Health Systems Strategic Communications. "All studies have shown that Gulf War veterans report nearly twice the rate of all symptoms compared to Service members who did not deploy. However, based on many research studies, IOM concluded that there are no unique symptoms or unique pattern of symptoms in Gulf War veterans."

However, five years ago, Vanity Fair's David Rose quoted Kilpatrick as saying that Gulf War veterans are no less healthy than soldiers who were stationed elsewhere. Kilpatrick, said Rose, dismissed a penetrating 2004 GAO Gulf War probe. The GAO then concluded that studies used by federal officials to show Gulf War veterans were no sicker than the veterans of other wars "may not be reliable" and had "inherent limitations." That GAO report was "just the opinion of a group of individuals," Kilpatrick told Rose.

Research Advisory Committee Hedges Some of Its Conclusions

Despite what it suggested is the uncertainty of health impacts of some of the other hazardous exposures, the RAC concluded that the most likely causes of thousands of Gulf War Syndrome illnesses were pesticides and the pills supplied the troops to allegedly protect them from warfare nerve gases. Low levels of those gases were fired by Iraqis. Others were released when the US blew up Iraqi chemical warfare storage at the Khamisiyah storage bunkers after the war, despite advance US intelligence of the dangers lurking there. The RAC additionally found that it could not rule out an association between Gulf War illnesses and soldiers' exposures to those low-level nerve agents, extended exposure to smoke from oil well fires, receipt of large numbers of vaccines and combinations of neurotoxic exposures.

The committee urged more scientific studies for the health impacts of the controversial anthrax vaccine and dangerous depleted munitions dust. Nevertheless, its members discounted some obvious scientific and other evidence, which pointed to the vaccine's and the dust's potential to make many of those exposed to them seriously ill. To the detriment of some service members, the report focused almost entirely on hazards causing Gulf War Syndrome and not other battle-time hazards leading to other individual illnesses unrelated to the syndrome.

Days after the RAC's report was received by the VA, its officials turned the results over to the IOM. Incidentally, Dr. Lynn Goldman of Chevy Chase, Maryland, vice chair of the IOM's Gulf War and Health Study, was a member of the RAC.

Asked about its own critique of the IOM, Steve R. Smithson, a spokesman for the RAC, said: "The referral of the report to IOM, in light of the evidence that VA has effectively compromised and manipulated previous IOM Gulf War reports, is a transparent effort to continue to delay and deny the need to deal with this important veterans' health problem … It should … have the previous IOM exposure reports redone, as recommended in the RAC report." He continued, "The VA inaccurately stated in its referral statement that the law requires referring Gulf War research to the IOM. In fact, the law in question only requires that the IOM prepare specific reports as to whether toxic substances to which troops were exposed can cause health problems...."

Stencel replied, "The Institute of Medicine follows a study process that has been used over many years by all the branches of the National Academy of Sciences. It yields hundreds of reports that are considered authoritative, reliable assessments of matters of science and technology … Study reports' findings and recommendations must be supported by and grounded in scientific evidence."

The VA's spokesman, Benson, said, "Caring for all veterans, including veterans who served in combat during the 1991 Gulf War, is VA's highest priority. With this in mind, VA requested that the IOM, as part of the current congressionally mandated Gulf War veteran health review, take a look at the new RAC report."

However, the VA called for the IOM's opinion on the RAC report despite saying: the IOM's series of reports have been "skewed and limited by a restrictive approach to the scientific tasks mandated by Congress, an approach directed by VA in commissioning the reports." In fact, the IOM had by then already concluded that evidence was insufficient to link depleted uranium munitions dust with Gulf War illnesses. And, it also found the anthrax vaccine not to be a factor in Gulf War illnesses. On the other hand, the RAC's report said more evidence is needed to prove that depleted uranium and the anthrax vaccine were factors in Gulf War illnesses.

Anthrax Vaccine and Depleted Uranium Dust Controversies

So, after closing on a nearly two decades of research and investigation, it appears to some veterans and their advocates that sick veterans may be back to where they started when looking for help in the early 1990s. And, yet, many of them believe evidence is overwhelming that both depleted uranium dust and the old anthrax vaccine created many of the Gulf War illnesses now suffered by veterans.

In the era of the 1991 Iraq war, the vaccine was manufactured by Michigan Biologic Products, a state-owned facility, regularly criticized for serious shortcomings during health and other inspections. On the one hand, the RAC's research rejected proof of a link between anthrax vaccinations of Gulf War veterans and their multiple illnesses. But, on the other, Dr. Meryl Nass, who has studied the vaccine extensively, said that the committee's own report cited conflicting data from nine studies of the vaccine. All nine studies found a relationship between receiving anthrax vaccine and developing symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome, she said. "In eight of the nine studies, the relationship was statistically significant," Dr. Nass explained.

And, before the war, a Congressional investigation recommended against using the vaccine. During 1989 US Senate hearings about the military's readiness to combat biological warfare, then Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert B. Barker stated, "current vaccines, particularly the anthrax vaccine, do not readily lend themselves to use in mass troop immunization." He cited a higher-than-desirable rate of adverse reactions to the drug. An, he added, the vaccine "in some cases, (lacks) strong enough (effectiveness) against infection by the aerosol route of exposure." That is exactly the exposure for which the Pentagon then used it two years later for some 150,000 service members headed for the Gulf War. And yet, many question the need for the vaccine in light of the fact that the spores it supposedly protects service members from have never been used successfully by terrorists or enemies of the United States, or any country, for that matter. As far as the vaccine's health dangers are concerned, the RAC inquiry itself said, "The IOM report concluded that rates of acute adverse reactions to [the anthrax inoculations] appeared comparable to other vaccines … however, recently published studies indicate that [the anthrax vaccine] is associated with extremely high rates of acute, local reactions, higher than is typical of other vaccines."

Dr. Steele said, "We respect Dr. Nass and have reviewed her writings and comments over the years, including comments she has provided at RAC meetings. Our review of the evidence did indicate that the anthrax vaccine is associated with a high rate of acute, local reactions … But … there was limited evidence concerning long-term health effects of the vaccine, and little evidence supporting an association specifically with Gulf War illness."

"The fact that the vaccine in current use is associated with a high rate of short-term reactions, especially at the injection site, does not tell us about its potential to cause chronic illness like that affecting Gulf War veterans," said the doctor. "We actually did identify eight different studies in which an association between anthrax vaccine and chronic symptoms was assessed in five different groups of Gulf War veterans. As with most other Gulf War exposures, many of these studies appeared to show a significant association between symptoms and receipt of the anthrax vaccine, as Dr. Nass mentioned in her comments. However, the link between symptoms and anthrax vaccine was consistently weaker than for most other exposures."

As for depleted uranium, the RAC concluded it was not a long-term health threat. "Overall, these [numerous scientific and governmental] reviews have consistently found that available evidence indicates that DU exposures, at levels experienced by the majority of Gulf War veterans, are not expected to produce long-term health effects, specifically in relation to excess cancer rates and chronic renal disease," said the report.

But, Dr. Steele insisted nonetheless: "It is important, again, to be clear that the Committee's report did not address the question of whether or not DU poses a health threat of any kind. We found, rather, that the available evidence, of different types, does not support DU as a cause of Gulf War illness." She explained that more epidemiologic research is needed to link DU exposure with any other types of health problems in Gulf War veterans.

Depleted uranium dust blew widely over Iraq and Kuwait during both wars in Iraq from the myriad of US Army and British munition firings aimed at destroying tanks and other armored vehicles. The deadly dust hangs around for millions of years, and is incredibly expensive to clean up and dispose of. So, no one can know when the wind will blow the dust into the lungs, a drinking water supply or soil growing crops for animals and humans.

The US military first began plans to use depleted uranium munitions in the 1970s. They were manufactured as a cheap munition, profit-lucrative to producers, from radioactive waste products generated in the nuclear industry. Once fired, they destroy their targets with incredible fiery heat, creating a chemical, radiated dust, which can blow in the wind for many miles. If unknowing persons inhale, drink or ingest the dust, it stays in their bodies for many years. That creates the danger of cancers, kidney disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, Lou Gehrig's, Parkinson's, Hodgkin's diseases, and a number of other sicknesses, some scientific researchers say. When depleted uranium munitions are test fired in the US or Britain, the strict rules controlling cleanup are seldom followed.

"Veterans and civilians in these wars WERE exposed to DU, and this inhaled DU represents a seriously enhanced risk of damaged immune systems and fatal cancers." Rosalie Bertell, PhD, GNSH, told Abolition 2000, a Global Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons.

Although denying Bertell's and many others' assessments that depleted uranium dust is a severe health hazard, the IOM last year concluded: "Military personnel have been exposed to depleted uranium as a result of friendly-fire incidents, cleanup and salvage operations, and proximity to burning depleted-uranium-containing tanks and ammunition. During the Gulf War, an estimated 134-164 people experienced ‘level I' exposure (the highest of three exposure categories as classified by the US Department of Defense) through wounds caused by depleted-uranium fragments, inhalation of airborne depleted-uranium particles, ingestion of depleted-uranium residues, or wound contamination by depleted-uranium residues. Hundreds or thousands more may have been exposed to lower exposure through inhalation of dust containing depleted-uranium particles and residue or ingestion from hand-to-mouth contact or contamination of clothing."

Neither the IOM nor the VA Research Advisory Committee reports detailed the potential of strong or even weak winds carrying DU dust for many miles and thus exposing more humans, animals, plants and soil to its radiation hazards. "The US Department of Defense has acknowledged that 320 tons of DU munitions were expended, whereas the nuclear research foundation LAKA, of Holland, estimates that the total amount of DU used in Iraq and Kuwait exceeded 800 tons," said Damacio A. Lopez, the executive director of the International DU Study Team. "The International Committee of Radiological Protection estimates that enough DU was used to cause 500,000 potential deaths, if it were inhaled."

Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, has called for further Congressional investigations, to pierce the US Department of Veterans Affairs' "questionable" relationship with the Institute of Medicine and both of their failures to properly investigate Gulf War illnesses. Sullivan said he wants "Congress to investigate the handful of top VA officials who blocked the scientific literature review into Gulf War illnesses … including both human and animal studies, to determine whether toxic exposures can cause health effects among our veterans deployed to Southwest Asia during 1990 and 1991. VA employees appear to have conspired with IOM staff to cook the books and eliminate consideration of critical animal research. Since most research on toxic substances is conducted in animals for ethical reasons, the result has been that the IOM committees have found no connections, and health-care and benefits for veterans remains very minimal."

Stencel said the IOM would not comment on Sullivan's statement. But VA spokesman Jim Benson said, "Overall, these congressionally-mandated IOM committee reports have found a broad spectrum of possible health effects associated with a range of potential Gulf War hazards, most of which have been well established in the existing occupational health literature. Their reports have not identified any new or unique illnesses among veterans of the 1991 Gulf War."

"These independent analyses of Gulf War veteran health issues," said Benson, "have been useful as an independent and scientifically highly credible evaluation of the nature and the causes of Gulf War veterans' health problems. [They] have been the basis for the [VA] Secretary's decision to establish presumptions of service connection for nine infectious diseases associated with service in the Gulf War region. That decision will be implemented through forthcoming rule-making procedures."

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