Gulf War Veterans Offer Tips to Troops

San Francisco Chronicle

December 26, 2002

It’s been nearly a dozen years since they returned home from war in the Persian Gulf, where they flew fighter jets, launched missiles, took part in tank battles and provided logistical support.

Today, most veterans of the 1991 war are watching from the sidelines as the nation debates the wisdom of another invasion of Iraq.

No one has polled Gulf War veterans to get their collective opinion on a new conflict. But interviews with nine veterans from across the country revealed a wide array of reasons for supporting and opposing another war with Iraq.

“We need to get Saddam Hussein like we should have the first time,” said Brent Roberts, a former Marine who provided security for a battalion commander in the Persian Gulf.

“I don’t rule out war as a last resort during a national emergency where there has been a direct threat to national security,” said Erik Gustafson, a former Army engineer who built prisoner-of-war camps, hospitals and supply routes in the gulf and now lives in Washington, D.C. “There are times when a nation has to go to war. This is not one of them.”

Some veterans worried about the financial cost, while others are troubled by the possible human toll — in both American and Iraqi lives.

Several cited the need for a change in U.S. foreign policy — and a shift in energy policy toward renewable sources — to avoid another war.

Others said Hussein’s past behavior suggested he could be disarmed only by being forcibly removed from power.

Veterans were largely united, however, in their concern for the safety of U. S. troops and whether they are properly equipped.

They cited recent government reports suggesting soldiers may be sent into battle with broken gas masks, defective protective suits and faulty chemical alarms.

DANGER OF BAD EQUIPMENT

“Damn — we don’t need to go to war with bad equipment,” said Steve Robinson, whose Army unit helped repatriate Kurdish refugees after they fled into the mountains of northern Iraq during the Gulf War.

His concern was echoed by other veterans, including Erin Cole of Alexandria,

Va., who collected maps, ledgers and unit insignia from deserted Iraqi foxholes during the war.

When chemical alarms sounded in their camp, everyone in Cole’s unit would immediately put on their gas masks. They took them off only when they heard the “all clear” signal, she said.

Cole was shocked at disclosures — contained in a 2001 Army report — that 62 percent of the Army’s gas masks were “either completely broken or less than fully operational.”

“If we had thought there was even a question that our gas masks would not work, that they could be defective or completely useless, that fact would have been devastating for morale in the face of an attack with biological or chemical agents,” she said.

Cole, 32, learned Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey and now sells collectible figurines — women in camouflage wielding M-16s — commissioned from a Russian factory.

She said the 1991 war was justified, because of Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait.

“Here, we would set a precedent by invading a sovereign nation based on the assumption — there is no proof — that they are developing or have weapons of mass destruction,” she said.

Cole, who reads many foreign newspapers, said they daily addressed a topic she rarely sees discussed by their U.S. counterparts — the fact that Iraq controls the world’s second largest oil reserve.

Even back in 1991, U.S. troops questioned whether the Gulf War was about oil or about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, she said.

“Things happen all over the world on a regular basis, and we don’t get involved,” Cole said. “I’m not anti-military. I’m not anti-war, but let’s bring everything out into the open.”

GULF WAR’S MYSTERY ILLNESSES

While many ailing veterans caution against returning to Iraq as long as the cause of Gulf War illnesses remains unknown, some, like Roberts, support a new war.

Roberts, who was once a super-fit Marine, can no longer work, a result of debilitating illnesses that cause constant joint and muscle pain.

In 1999, after an eight-year battle, the Veterans Administration said Roberts was 100 percent disabled, verifying that his ailments were linked to his service.

Roberts, who has two young daughters and lives in San Bernardino County, is one of about 200,000 Gulf War veterans — out of 700,000 deployed — who have suffered illness, according to epidemiological studies.

Roberts said if a new wave of troops came back sick from the Persian Gulf, they should hook up with veterans who know the ropes at the VA, “so they won’t have to go through what we’ve been through.”

Those who fought in the Gulf War were exposed to a dozen toxic substances, including fallout from the U.S. destruction of Iraqi chemical weapons depots. Recent studies have shown some veterans sustained brain damage from exposure to nerve gas.

Roberts, 34, wasn’t surprised to hear that more than half of the Army’s gas masks were defective.

Just before Roberts shipped out to the Persian Gulf, the military handed out new gas-mask filters to troops who had used their masks during training exercises in which they had been exposed to chemicals.

“They didn’t have enough filters, so a lot of those people didn’t get new ones,” Roberts said. “When they went to the Persian Gulf, their masks wouldn’t have worked anyway.”

After the Gulf War, as veterans began reporting a host of mysterious illnesses doctors could not diagnose, the National Gulf War Resource Center emerged as the voice for ailing veterans.

Robinson, executive director of the Washington, D.C., group, said news of broken gas masks, defective protective suits and faulty chemical alarms was a replay of the last war.

“It’s the exact same scenario as 1991 when detectors didn’t detect, chemical suits didn’t work, and gas masks were broken,” he said.

Robinson, 40, said the Pentagon’s persistent inventory problems — which have been the subject of congressional hearings — may leave troops vulnerable if they come under more than two days of chemical warfare attack.

“If you’re exposed, at the first opportunity you’re supposed to take off the suit and change into a new one,” he said. “Typically, soldiers only have two suits. If they get three exposures, they’re screwed.”

Robinson noted that some of those garments could be defective, citing a recent U.S. General Accounting Office report, which said the Pentagon had lost track of 250,000 defective suits.

NEED FOR CAUTION

“All those things should give us pause to rethink rushing into anything,” Robinson said.

Among those veterans who suffered disabling diseases after the war is Michael Donnelly of South Windsor, Conn., a former Air Force fighter pilot who flew F-16s and later wrote about his experiences.

The cover photograph on his book, “Falcon’s Cry: A Desert Storm Memoir,” shows a smiling fighter pilot standing with his helmet tucked under one arm.

The photograph in the back of the 1998 memoir shows him sitting in a wheelchair.

Donnelly, 43, who has two children, can no longer speak or move. He uses a feeding tube for nutrition and a ventilator to breathe. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — also known as Lou Gerhig’s disease — five years after the war.

In “Falcon’s Cry,” he described his love of flying and his battle against a government that said there was no link between the devastating disease and his service in the Persian Gulf.

Donnelly and other veterans with ALS felt vindicated in 2001, when the Department of Veterans Affairs announced Gulf War veterans were about twice as likely to contract the disease as veterans who hadn’t been there.

Donnelly communicates through his home health aide, who recites the alphabet and waits for his eyes to signal she has named the letter he needs to spell a word.

Asked about the prospect of another war, Donnelly said: “Get Saddam this time.”

Asked what advice he would give to men and women who may return ill from future Persian Gulf battlefields, Donnelly said: “Take care of yourself, because the government won’t.”

Kathleen Sullivan: ksullivan@sfchronicle.com

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