Mitchell Lambert came back from the Persian Gulf War with lasting souvenirs — rashes, lumps, headaches and seizures.
He’s convinced that those symptoms relate to the four months he spent serving his country in the Mideast more than a decade ago.
“We unfortunately were exposed to a little bit more dangerous stuff than what we should have been,” the 30-year-old Medina County resident said.
But Lambert, like thousands of other veterans, has found that the federal government, at worst, disagrees and, at best, is simply fumbling to find a link between service in the Gulf War and a host of medical disorders.
More than a third of the 700,000 active-duty and reserve U.S. veterans who served in the Gulf War say they suffered health problems from their service in 1990 and 1991 and have filed claims for disability payments.
In about 20,000 of those cases, the veterans’ illnesses can’t be explained.
With the country on the cusp of going back to war in the Mideast, the mystery illnesses take on added urgency — particularly because the United States is no closer to understanding the cause now than it was a decade ago.
More than 200 government-funded studies costing $200 million have failed to uncover a link between service in the Gulf War and veterans’ health, although one small study found that deployed veterans were twice as likely to contract amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, as nondeployed vets.
And although unexplained illnesses affect Gulf veterans, they also affect the citizenry at large — people whose closest link to sand was a beach.
The answers are few and far between.
“We do not have scientific evidence that this-and-this would cause a syndrome, across the board, over time,” says Jim Benson, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
That’s little comfort to those whose lives were torn apart by months spent in the Mideast.
“Most of us came down with some kind of diarrhea and headaches,” says vet Bob Toth of Canton, who heads the Stark County Veterans Service Commission. “It’s improved vastly, but it lingers.”
Lambert served as an Army cavalry scout in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
When he returned home to Lafayette Township, he came down with bronchitis, pneumonia, open and oozing rashes, grainy vision, muscle spasms and tremors.
“The other day,” he says, “we went to the zoo with the kids and, all of a sudden, my heart started to act funny. There was this piercing, painful sensation in the back of my head for just five minutes, and the arrhythmia was much greater than it normally is.”
He’s convinced that his medical problems stem from things he was exposed to during the Gulf War: a fire at a motor pool of vehicles carrying depleted uranium, smoke from oil well fires and Iraqi mustard gas drums.
A married father of two, Lambert works as a technician for a medical services company. He is often sick and worries about the future.
“I can deal with my shoulder,” he said, referring to an injury he suffered during training in Germany. “But this other stuff — there’s nothing I can do with it. It’s — I don’t know — a very difficult position to be in.”
The VA is paying Lambert on two disability claims — for the shoulder injury and for headaches that may stem from the shoulder complaint.
He’s asked for compensation for other disabilities, too — for more than 40 lumps that cover his legs, throat and arms and for post-traumatic stress disorder. He has yet to hear from the government on either of those claims.
Mental, physical fallout
When 33-year-old Akron veteran David Reed returned home after seven months in Saudi Arabia, he no longer felt strong enough to practice tae kwon do, in which he has a black belt. And his happy, sociable temperament was gone.
“You could have hit me over the head with a 2-by-4 and I might have said something,” said Reed, who works as a bus driver. “Now, you look at me and it might set me off.”
The VA sent him to a counselor and a psychiatrist. When he blew up at a supervisor at work, his employer sent him to anger-management classes and suspended him for four days.
Then there are the “real wrenching stomachaches — like someone’s grabbed ahold of your stomach and is wringing it out like a wash cloth,” Reed says.
His vomiting, diarrhea, fevers and achy joints have worsened over time.
The VA agreed that Reed has an undiagnosed illness and approved his claim at 0 percent. That means he doesn’t get any money for that illness now, but that could change if the symptoms worsen.
To add insult to injury, he went to the Mideast with a full head of hair and came back without it.
The VA told him that male pattern baldness was to blame. Reed doesn’t think so.
“It’s not natural for a 21-year-old man to lose his hair,” he says.
Complaints aren’t new
Complaints like Reed’s and Lambert’s aren’t new. They’ve surfaced at other times, in other wars.
“There’s this cluster of people who come back with symptoms that the medical community can’t diagnose,” says Phil Budahn, another VA spokesman.
But in the early ’90s, servicemen and women came back to a greater galaxy of benefits and more know-how about how to access them.
“Many World War II soldiers came back, maybe missing a leg,” Benson says. “But they didn’t expect much, and they didn’t ask for much from their government.”
The Gulf War illnesses have turned into a decadelong nightmare for the government — one it doesn’t want to encounter again and one it never envisioned in the first place.
“We weren’t expecting this,” says Dr. Francis O’Donnell, a medical research consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense, which oversees the health care of the armed forces.
He says the military tried to guard against the Mideast’s known threats, such as malaria and sand fly fever, and did a good job in controlling those diseases.
And the government has made some changes since the war. There are now research sites devoted to Gulf War illnesses and registries to track veterans’ symptoms. And VA policy has been improved to provide free health care for two years after discharge to combat veterans who have served since November 1998.
If the United States goes back to war in the Persian Gulf, O’Donnell says, the Defense Department will put more emphasis on educating soldiers about the environmental threats they face and on ways to protect themselves — everything from using insect repellant to chlorinating water to wearing their uniforms the proper way to fend off biting insects.
Before deployment, the government will do more environmental surveillance to make sure troops aren’t exposed to unknown or unremedied hazards.
O’Donnell says servicemen and women will be told what — if any — hazards are found so they won’t be plagued later by lingering doubts about unknown dangers.
Wary of return to Gulf
Even though their military careers are over, many Gulf War veterans are wary about the United States going back to the Persian Gulf again.
One is Toth, who heads Stark’s veterans commission. He suffered a 10 percent hearing loss in one ear because he lived too close to huge generators that thundered without stop for eight months in Saudi Arabia.
Toth, now 55, says he wouldn’t want to return to the sand, the heat and the worry about what the next day would bring. He fervently wishes the veterans’ medical complaints were resolved once and for all.
But he’s glad he served when he did.
“You trust in your government, you do your duty, you don’t question it,” he says. “You just hope you’re in that number of people who return — and return healthy.”
Carol Biliczky can be reached at 330-996-3729 or firstname.lastname@example.org