“A Bona Fide Crisis”
Of the 696,778 U.S. troops in the 1990-1991 Operation Desert Shield (the build-up of Persian Gulf forces beginning in August 1990) and Desert Storm (the air war against Iraq from January to February 1991, culminating in the 100-hour ground assault), 148 were killed in action and 235 died from other causes, such as accidents.8
In the years after, however, the price rose, with 206,861 — 29 percent of those who served — filing for VA disability compensation as of May 2002. CNN has since reported the figure climbing to 209,000, with 161,000 receiving disability payments.9 Meanwhile, veterans’ advocates have claimed that Gulf War deaths have steadily mounted.
Documents Freedom obtained from the VA showed that as of December 1997 — the most recent data provided — 4,506 Gulf veterans had died. However, the Gulf War Veterans Information System website, administered by the VA, revealed that as of May 2002 — the most current data — that number had risen to 8,013. The latter figure constitutes 1.15 percent of the 696,778 deployed to the Gulf — nearly double the 0.69 percent death rate among Gulf War-era servicepersons who were not sent there.
“This is a bona fide crisis,” said Garth Nicolson. We’re not moving fast enough to care for those already affected, he said, yet more Americans are now in the region where they, too, are in harm’s way.
More Deaths Predicted
As startling as the official tally may be, many think the actual toll is even higher. Nicolson believes tens of thousands of Gulf veterans have died, based on a confidential estimate of 28,000 deaths he said he received several years ago from a senior Defense Department official.
Joyce Riley, an Air Force captain and flight nurse during the Gulf War who has tracked veterans and their health problems ever since, told Freedom that a source within the VA informed her that 40,000 Gulf War veterans had died — a figure contested by the VA when asked by Freedom.
Riley also believes up to 400,000 Gulf veterans are now ill. And she stands by her figures. The 40,000 deaths estimate, she said, came from a national-level VA official. She predicts that unless successful treatments are embraced, the toll will continue to rise. “Given the fact that there are now 400,000 sick,” she said, “in 10 years’ time, I would say [there will be] 80,000 to 100,000 deaths.” (See “Desert Storm: Deadlier than Vietnam?”.)
In a January 2002 hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Representative Bob Filner (D-CA) warned that it was “absolutely vital that we figure out what happened in the Persian Gulf War, [and] treat those who are suffering from illness.... [A]s we all well know, there is a high probability that our troops will be in the area again.”
In an investigation that stretches back to when reports of Gulf War Illness first surfaced, Freedom interviewed scores of informed sources who echoed his concern that something must be done.
“The Iraqi Curse”
In addition to the thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of disability applications from among U.S. veterans, men and women of other nations who served in the Gulf have also experienced severe health problems.
In Great Britain, for example, Gulf veterans suffer from lymphatic cancer at nearly twice the normal rate of men of similar age.10 In Denmark, 40 percent of the troops that served in the Gulf War are said to have Gulf War Illness.11
And in southern Iraq, the focus of Desert Storm operations, both cancer and birth defects reportedly rose sharply after the Gulf War — the former more than doubled, the latter surged nearly three times. Dean Alim A.H. Yacoub of Basra Medical College said, “You have in the United States what you call the Gulf War Syndrome. Here we call it the Iraqi curse.”12
Nonetheless, biological causes of symptoms have largely been discounted since veterans first reported them in 1991. Critics charge that, rather than seeing clear evidence of harm from chemical and biological warfare agents and environmental toxins, VA doctors simply told veterans their problems were “in their heads.”
Those who served in the Gulf know the cause is not a mental quirk. In fact, signs of a biological source or sources have increasingly emerged — including evidence that Gulf War Illness has spread from veterans to their families.
“Something Happened Out There”
During Desert Storm, Major Lisa Porter commanded the 419th Transportation Company, a petroleum resupply unit whose vehicles ranged through Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait. She told Freedom of uncommon experiences, such as a flock of roughly 100 dead sheep observed by the side of an Iraqi road, with no outward sign of harm to the animals and no flies around the bodies.
After returning to her home in Utah, Porter served as president of the Gulf War Veterans Association of Utah, and heard stories of maladies she described as “frightening.” In 1997, she testified before the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses, empowered by Bill Clinton to investigate causes and possible treatment.
“I know by personally talking to many [veterans],” Porter told the committee, “that the symptoms range from rashes that won’t go away to loss of memory and confusion, to headaches, dizziness, fatigue, weakness where they cannot physically do the things they used to do, a couple of instances of tumors that have grown within their bodies. With one individual, it was massive blood vessels knotted and tangled. The doctors could not give an explanation of how that could occur.”
With another young veteran, she said, “three feet of his intestines died for no reason and began rotting inside his body and [were] removed surgically.” “Soldiers across America who love this great country went in good faith and good will to support and defend our family and our loved ones,” she stated. “We supported and defended a country that we love. That type of good will and faith and support from your countrymen deserves and demands a return of good faith and good will to find and search out what happened.”
Major Porter told Freedom she has “a strong feeling that something happened out there” — and that that “something” was biological.
“That Capacity Surely Did Exist”
“How in God’s name have we come so far as an Army, to now be facing this kind of threat and this kind of peril? I need a solution and I need it now.”
Those words, attributed to a senior U.S. military commander on the eve of Operation Desert Storm, reportedly came in response to learning that allied forces poised to invade Iraq were vulnerable to cocktails of biological agents possessed by Saddam Hussein’s forces — lethal mixtures of toxins dispersed by sophisticated, highly mobile sprayers.
If charges made to Freedom are true, knowledge of these little-publicized sprayers may open the door to further answers regarding Gulf War Illness — and to aid for America’s veterans.
Pleas for help by Major Porter and others were echoed before the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses by Colonel David Irvine, an attorney and former member of Utah’s state legislature. Today a brigadier general in the Army Reserve, Irvine urged the committee to investigate links between Iraqi chemical-biological warfare systems and subsequent illness of American veterans, and to interview an expert in this regard, Colonel Gerry Schumacher.
“During the build-up for Desert Storm, Colonel Schumacher was part of a classified Army team investigating the chemical and biological potential of the Iraqi forces,” Irvine informed the committee. “Colonel Schumacher has personal, firsthand knowledge and documentation of the Iraqi chemical and biological capability and the capability of their military forces to dispense those agents.”
Irvine said that Schumacher and his team investigated the capability and number of Iraqi dispensers, noting, “he can absolutely and conclusively demonstrate the existence of that capability, tie it to some extremely bizarre symptoms that Gulf War vets experience and can provide a valuable linkage for demonstrating that that capacity surely did exist and that in all probability it was used.”