WASHINGTON — President Bush will churn out shopworn platitudes about the sacrifices of the nation’s brave soldiers this Memorial Day. But many of the soldiers, active duty and retired, are not listening. Instead, they want Bush to stop ducking and answer some hard questions.
What about a Department of Defense study to be published in the June issue of the journal NeuroToxicology? That report reveals that 100,000 U.S. troops were exposed to deadly sarin nerve gas during the first Gulf War and many now suffer permanent “brain deficits.”
The plume of deadly nerve gas was released in March 1991 when soldiers blew up two Iraqi ammunition and missile caches discovered near the Iraqi town of Khamisiyah. Some of the missiles contained sarin and cyclosarin.
The study was led by professor Roberta F. White, chair of the environmental health department at the Boston University School of Public Health. The team studied 26 Gulf War veterans, half of whom were exposed to sarin gas. Magnetic resonance imaging revealed shrinkage of the brain’s connective tissue or “white matter” in the soldiers exposed to sarin compared to soldiers not exposed.
When 700,000 troops came home from that war, dubbed “Operation Desert Storm,” many thousands complained of chronic headaches, joint pain, nausea and fatigue, lumped together as “Gulf War Syndrome.” More than 150,000 continue to suffer from the maladies, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. But the Pentagon under successive administrations has rebuffed veterans’ claims that GWS is a service-related disability qualifying victims for VA benefits.
Michael McPhearson, executive director of Veterans for Peace, himself a paratrooper deployed to Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, told the World, “I’m concerned about this. I am a veteran of the Gulf War myself. At last there is some validation for what we have been saying all along. Look how long it has taken! Look how many veterans have suffered without getting any help.”
The federal government, he said, must provide long-overdue compensation and medical care for these veterans. “I hope it doesn’t take the Pentagon 15 years to address the problems suffered by the veterans of the current Iraq war. Our mission is to stop wars. There has to be a better way of solving our problems than war.”
Toby Hartbarger, a veteran of Gulf War II, is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). He was in combat in Baghdad, Fallujah and Nejaf as a mortar-man assigned to a squad of Army scouts. Since he left the Army he has suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I’m going through the VA system, trying to get some compensation for my PTSD,” he told the World in a phone interview. “Anytime you have to deal with VA, it’s a pain in the ass.”
Hartbarger said he plans to go back to college, but Veterans Affairs has informed him his tuition benefit will be reduced because he served only two years instead of three. It makes no difference that 15 of those months were spent in harm’s way in Iraq, he said. “After World War II, veterans went to college on the GI Bill of Rights. But its not like that now.”
He added, “There is so much exploded and unexploded munitions around, just being in Iraq you are exposed to depleted uranium and other toxic substances. We are extremely concerned about how the returning soldiers are being treated — or not treated — by the military and the Veterans Administration.”
Dr. Michael McCally, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), praised the study. “It uses a very hard measure, looking at brain structure with magnetic imaging. It appears from their data that soldiers most exposed to the sarin suffered the greatest changes in brain structure. It’s a very powerful technique, and obviously it will be followed up.”
McCally was a member of the PSR team that prepared a report on depleted uranium (DU) weapons in Iraq. That report assailed the U.S. for having “explicitly forbidden the UN Environmental Program from doing the requisite environmental sampling to determine the extent of DU contamination that in the second Gulf War was spread into numerous Iraqi cities.”
Iraqi doctors blame DU for the skyrocketing birth defects and cancer death rates among Iraqi children.
Paul Richardson, executive director of the Gulf War Resource Center in Kansas City, said the Defense Department report corroborates an earlier report by the Institute of Medicine released last September that also found evidence of brain damage to the veterans from exposure to toxic chemicals.
“The first thing you can say is that many veterans have known this for a long time,” Richardson said. “Why didn’t the defense establishment acknowledge these veterans’ illness so they could get their benefits and medical treatment? Congress must step forward and fund more research.”
For tens of thousands of disabled veterans, he added, “There are grounds for reopening a claim based on ‘new and material evidence’ that the soldier did indeed sustain a disabling injury. The government is finally admitting that their sickness is the result of an exposure while serving their country.”