Steve Robinson’s phone rings all the time these days. Usually, the callers are soldiers who want to know what they should do to prepare for chemical or biological attacks if there is a war with Iraq.
He tells them to pay close attention to their surroundings, to note any medications they’re given and to keep careful medical records.
Robinson is a veteran of the Gulf War who spent 20 years in the Army. He retired last year but is now an advocate for Gulf War vets as the executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center in Maryland.
Robinson gives his advice from experience. He has seen and heard many stories about Gulf War illness, the unexplained health problems that struck hundreds of soldiers following their return from Desert Storm in 1991. But the symptoms of the illnesses of Gulf War veterans are so varied that some have been unable to demonstrate that the disorder is connected to their military service.
With another possible war with Iraq looming, Robinson fears that mistakes will be repeated from the first war.
“The guys who fight the next gulf war, they’re going to be just as unprepared as we were,” Robinson said.
Department of Defense officials could not be reached for comment.
Robinson said the military’s equipment for fending off chemical agents wasn’t effective in the Gulf War and will not work in another war.
“Nobody’s talking about it because it’s going to affect morale,” he said. “I know I would have a morale problem if I were in the military and my equipment didn’t work. I don’t know what to tell guys now that don’t have the proper equipment.”
Robinson’s opinion is echoed by other other veterans advocates and people have fallen ill since their services in the Gulf War.
“I’m not sure there’s any good protection against biological or chemical warfare,” said retired Maj. Gloria Nickerson, a Gulf War veteran who lives in Hoke County. “It’s pretty hard to test. You wouldn’t want to be the subject.”
Nickerson, who is 50, said she is one of the victims of Gulf War illness. She spent six weeks in Saudi Arabia in 1991. She was healthy then. But since her return she has been diagnosed with diabetes and Hepatitis C. The illnesses have kept her out of work, but she receives no compensation from the Department of Defense.
“It’s very depressing,” she said. “I don’t feel enthusiasm for pursuing the disability claims. It’s kind of hard to expect sick people to fight for themselves.”
Nearly 700,000 men and women were sent to the Middle East as a part of Operation Desert Storm.
Many were afflicted with various maladies after they returned home. Doctors are still at a loss to explain the sicknesses, which range from rashes and headaches to chronic fatigue and immune system problems.
Sick soldiers, their families and veterans advocates have suspected that exposure to chemical weapons, oil field fires or depleted uranium caused the mysterious illnesses. Medications and vaccines that were supposed to protect them could also be the cause, they said.
Many are people like retired Air Force Staff Sgt. Richard Wadzinski Jr.
Wadzinski’s military records show he was vaccinated before his deployment against a host of diseases and infectious agents, including anthrax and botulism. He also took many pills the military provided as protection against nerve gas.
By the time he got home, however, Wadzinski had recurring rashes on his arms, chest and legs. Later, the headaches began, followed by chronic fatigue, and joint and muscle aches.
Some doctors told him his problems were in his head, he said.
He took early retirement in 1994 after 18 years of service. He took a job as an emergency services worker. Then, in December 1997, he learned his liver was failing. A transplant saved his life, but he says he lives in constant pain.
He has advice for the next wave of troops that could be headed to Iraq: “Have a good gas mask that’s in good working order, and know how to use it. And every time something happens, put it on. There is no such thing as a false alarm.”
The federal government has spent $213 million on 224 projects investigating the cause of the illnesses. In October, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced it will spend $20 million for research in fiscal 2004.
For people like Sarah Overdorff, it’s too late. Overdorff’s son, John O’Brien, died in 1998 at the age of 31. O’Brien was in the Navy reserves and spent six months in the Middle East in 1990 and 1991. But he began having health problems almost as soon as he returned home to Mars Hill. His hands and legs would go numb, she said. He also had psychological and memory problems. He died of a bacterial infection, something Overdorff said showed that her son’s immune system was compromised.
Overdorff said she and O’Brien’s widow are still fighting for compensation. Another war with Iraq should be a cause for concern, Overdorff said.
“We all agreed that if they have to do it, OK,” she said. “But as far as we’re concerned, they’re nowhere near ready because the gear is not ready and the training isn’t ready. If they had done their homework and had followed up on it, they would be ready.”
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 11,783 claims for undiagnosed illnesses have been filed by Gulf War veterans since the war, but only 3,129 claims – about 26 percent – have been approved.
Soldiers are taxed with the job of proving their illnesses are connected to their service in the Middle East. Robinson advises soldiers who might go off to another war to keep detailed medical records and to pay attention to their surroundings at all times, something he said isn’t easy.
“The problem is they put the burden of the proof on the soldiers,” he said. “A soldier can’t be a journalist and an epidemiologist while he’s fighting a war and shooting bullets downrange.”
David Autry, a spokesman for Disabled Veterans of America, said the Department of Defense needs to recognize the sick veterans. He said another wave of sickness from another war could tax a military health-care system that’s already strained.
“Historically, it seems to be a recurring problem that troops are exposed to something and then don’t find out about it until years later,” he said. “We hope things are different now. We hope the Department of Defense has learned that lesson.”
Staff writer Todd Leskanic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3572