They suffer excruciating muscle and joint pain, debilitating headaches, chronic fatigue. They experience memory loss and blackouts lasting minutes or even hours, regaining full consciousness miles away from a fading, fleeting memory. They undergo terrifying tremors and sudden seizures, falling uncontrollably, bruising and bleeding, time and again.
Some are in wheelchairs. Some are dead. Others wish they were.
Gulf War syndrome is hell. There's simply no other word to describe it. It's not at all what "peacekeepers" imagined when they volunteered to serve their country.
To date, around 40,000 Gulf War veterans have registered with the Department of Defenses' Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program. Veterans Affairs says that's not nearly enough: Add another 70,000 victims to the total misery list.
What causes Gulf War Syndrome? After conducting well over 100 studies and spending in excess of $100 million, the government says it simply doesn't know.
But in June 1996, the Department of Defense released a blockbuster scenario. It claimed that back in March 1991, the U.S. destroyed a large cache of chemical munitions at the Khamisiya depot in Iraq. The Defense Department and the CIA released computer-generated images of a wafting, toxic plume enveloping and possibly contaminating 100,000 troops. Voila--Gulf War Syndrome.
The public swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker, but it turned out to be pure, unadulterated spin. One, the symptoms of Gulf War syndrome isn’t even remotely close to the effects of chemical weapons. And two, many of those suffering from the syndrome hadn't been deployed in the Gulf.
In fact, some had never even left American shores.
What about Persian Gulf locals? There isn't a single reported case of Gulf War syndrome among the Kuwaitis, Egyptians or Israelis.
So what did America's troops--and those of Canada and Great Britain--do to earn this dubious, debilitating distinction? A growing number of medical experts believe it was nothing more than rolling up their collective sleeves for the anthrax shot. (or shots to "protect" them against a possible biological attack, some received multiple inoculations
The world's sole supplier of anthrax vaccine is Michigan Biologic Products Institute (MBPI) of Lansing, Michigan. The "institute" has been under intense scrutiny since February 1998, when FDA inspectors visited the plant and cited it for two-dozen infractions. There were serious lapses in manufacturing and quality control. Several batches of the vaccine failed the potency test. Some had expired: many were improperly re-dated. Manufacturing line areas were filthy. Production was halted for several months.
Critics went ballistic. The government responded by kicking in a couple million bucks-of our money-to spruce up the facility. But the same, highly questionable vaccine continues to be foisted upon unsuspecting troops.
The Gulf War Veterans Association has declared war on anthrax immunizations. The vets point to sky-high casualty numbers incorporating myriad systemic reactions. They talk about terrible autoimmune diseases that are not easily diagnosed or treated. They quote Lt. General Ronald Blanck, commanding officer of Walter Reed Army Medical Center: Anthrax vaccine should continue to be considered as a potential cause for undiagnosed illnesses in Persian Gulf personnel...
Attorney Mark Zaid represented the non-profit Veterans for Integrity in Government. He litigated a Freedom of Information act against the government. Among his discoveries: The first large-scale use of anthrax vaccine was the 150,000 servicemen inoculated during the Gulf War. Worse, despite government and manufacturer safety assertions to the contrary, long-term safety studies have yet to be undertaken. (Ironically, the stuff is so potent it's almost impossible to test on human beings.)
That doesn't seem to faze the military establishment. Last year, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen approved implementation of a military-wide anthrax immunization plan-a total of six shots over 18 months plus annual boosters.
A handful of armed forces personnel has declined the vaccine. Those who refuse the madness, endanger their careers and face confinement, forfeiture of pay, even dishonorable discharge. It's already happened.
There is, however, light at the end of the tunnel. Congress is considering two bills (HR2548 and HR2543) to end the forced implementation of anthrax vaccine. It's voluntary in all other countries, including our coalition partners. It should be voluntary here in America.
Military service is already a sacrifice. No one signed up to be a sacrificial lamb.
Epilog: Last September, MBPI was purchased by BioPort Corp., a company partially controlled by retired Adm. William Crowe. BioPort immediately won a two-year, $29 million Pentagon contract to make anthrax vaccine for U.S. military personnel. Translation: unless Congress acts, don't look for any sudden sea change in the status quo...
Barry Forbes can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org