Chemical Exposure and Gulf War Syndrome: Forgotten Illnesses, Forgotten Warriors?

I remember ramping up for the First Gulf War as a combat medic with the 102nd Medical Battalion, “Fighting” 69th Infantry Regiment, 42nd “Rainbow” Infantry Division, New York Army National Guard out of Manhattan, N.Y., back in 1990-1991.

I was helping teach a Combat Lifesaver course to the non-medical personnel in my unit and from other 69th units. The supply weenies (endearing term) were taking our measurements for “popcorn” desert camouflage uniforms, and our vehicles were being painted sand colors from their woodland camouflage pallet of black, green and brown.

Everyone thought there would be a protracted war with the Iraqis. They had entrenched themselves along the Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti borders and were holding their elite combat units in reserve. A classic, conventional defense that would prove a tough nut to crack, or so we thought. We were preparing for a drawn out and bloody trench war. Also, since Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons against the Iranians in the nearly decade long Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and against his own Iraqi Kurds, we trained heavily and seriously for chemical warfare, including treatment and care of chemical casualties and decontamination techniques.

U.S. soldiers pose in their chemical suits. Photo Credit: Veterans Today.

U.S. soldiers pose in their chemical suits. Photo Credit: Veterans Today.

Before my unit got orders for mobilization, the war had begun and then ended 10 days later. Victory was swift and decisive, with few U.S. casualties that weren’t self-inflicted.

It took months and then years for stories of strange illnesses, later tagged as Gulf War Syndrome, to filter into the conversations of the reserve military medical circles I ran in. Several soldiers and officers I later served with in the 356th Field Hospital and then the 4220th U.S. Army Hospital (U.S. Army Reserve units) out of Rocky Point, Long Island, N.Y., who served in the Gulf War, talked about symptoms of unexplained headaches, body aches, lack of concentration, nausea, and gastrointestinal problems.

I remember reading about a hypothesis in a study in the Military Surgeon’s periodical that said the syndrome could have been caused by the consumption of diet cola sweetened with aspartame – heated above 84 degrees Fahrenheit in storage facilities prior to being served to troops, turning the artificial sweetener into formaldehyde. Formaldehyde poisoning was the guess. By the way, your body turns the aspartame into formaldehyde as well, which binds to some bodily tissues.

I read other studies and reports that pointed to exposure to nerve agent spread from demolition of an Iraqi chemical weapons plant proximate to U.S. troops, and destruction of a chemical weapons storage facility by U.S. troops. Still other guesses included biological infestations, exposure to mysterious airborne desert particles and smoke from the over 700 burning oil wells, set fire by retreating Iraqi forces.

U.S. Marines walk near burning oil fields in Iraq. Photo Credit: U.S. Marines Space Corps.

U.S. Marines walk near burning oil fields in Iraq. Photo Credit: U.S. Marines Space Corps.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs now lists over a dozen potential causes of illnesses associated with service in the First Gulf War. The VA offers a “free Gulf War Registry health examfor possible long-term health problems related to Gulf War service.”

Now I read that “medical experts cannot agree on a definition of the illness,” which adds to the stigma associated with complaints from nearly one third of all who served in that war.

The skepticism surrounding the illness has waned, but a definitive treatment is elusive due to the varying symptoms and lack of concrete evidence pointing to a cause. My gut instinct from stories I’ve heard and personal conversations with those who served in the First Gulf War is exposure to chemical nerve agent, which affects the central nervous system. These agents are persistent, which means they are oil based and therefore can be absorbed into human tissue. These symptoms can manifest as an allergic reaction, either mild or severe.

There is legislation pending in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.R. 2510, which would address chemical exposure in veterans from burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, but since it was introduced in Congress last June it has not been brought to a vote.

U.S. Army soldiers watch garbage burn in a pit at Forward Operating Base Azzizulah in Afghanistan Feb. 4. A judge recently dismissed 57 lawsuits filed by military personnel who said they were injured by toxic fumes from the pits. Photo Credit: Reuters

U.S. Army soldiers watch garbage burn in a pit at Forward Operating Base Azzizulah in Afghanistan Feb. 4. A judge recently dismissed 57 lawsuits filed by military personnel who said they were injured by toxic fumes from the pits. Photo Credit: Reuters

The bill instructs the Department of Defense to “create three burn pit centers of excellence to research, diagnose, and treat veterans who have been exposed to these toxins.” Thousands of veterans, who dutifully established and maintained burn pits under orders, are suffering, some need lung transplants. But the Veterans Administration and Department of Defense are denying long-term care for these dedicated and loyal military servicemen and women.

Please sign the petition and let House Majority Leader, Eric CantorSpeaker of the House John Boehner, and your representatives know you want those who made it home to have every bit of care they deserve, whether or not what ails them can be easily diagnosed. It is all of our responsibility to care for our wounded warriors.

When they wrote a blank check to their country, they didn’t ask if it would be easy, they knew it could cost them their lives, but no one ever told them if it didn’t they would be ignored.

I am the author of “Saving Grace at Guantanamo Bay: A Memoir of a Citizen Warrior,” and three times mobilized U.S. Army Reserve Major (Retired). Twitter @mjgranger1

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