Anthony Hardie insists he’s no longer bitter, but his voice suggests otherwise.
Although he’s proud to have served with the U.S. Army in the Persian Gulf War – a war, by the way, he believes the United States was justified in waging – he’s convinced that U.S. and allied troops were never fully informed about the risks they encountered.
As a soldier, the 34-year-old Madison resident notes, “there’s a very overt realization when you go into a wartime situation that you may come back with pieces missing – or you may not come back at all.”
But when he re-enlisted to take part in the Gulf War, “I had absolutely no understanding that there were environmental issues I’d encounter that could have an impact on my health. I didn’t understand, for instance, that low levels of unseen airborne agents could permanently hurt me.”
Today, 12 years year, he still isn’t sure what caused the various maladies that continue to plague him – including asthma, violent coughing fits and occasional bouts of sheer exhaustion.
He does know that he experienced dizziness, vomiting and diarrhea while popping dozens of anti-nerve agent pills during his 4 months as a sergeant with an elite special operations unit in Kuwait. He knows that the fumes he inhaled while jogging within two miles of a burning oil field undoubtedly are responsible for the tiny particles of tar and ash embedded in his lungs.
And, thanks to a letter he received from the Pentagon two years ago, he knows he may have been among the 100,000 Gulf War veterans who were exposed to a cloud of chemical agents during a three-day period in March 1991.
But as disturbed as he is by the health problems that he and other Gulf War veterans continue to suffer – most notably, the 100 cases of early Alzheimer’s disease among veterans now being treated at a veterans hospital in Kentucky – he’s even more worried that the Pentagon hasn’t learned its lessons from the 1991 war.
“I think the Pentagon has done an incredibly inadequate job,” says Hardie, who now works for U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, but emphasizes that he’s speaking strictly as a U.S. citizen.
“And I don’t think it’s because of this administration or the Clinton administration,” he adds. “I think there’s institutional resistance within the Pentagon to admitting that something might have gone wrong” in 1991.
“And I think we’re sending troops over to the Mideast right now who don’t have a clue about how to protect themselves from low levels of nerve gas agents – if, in fact, Iraqi forces do use chemical weapons.”
This isn’t the first time that Hardie, a 1986 graduate of Onalaska High School, has publicly expressed his exasperation and disillusionment with the Pentagon for “misleading” those who served in the Gulf War.
But it is the first time he’s gone on record with his concerns about the current war buildup – not only because he’s bewildered by our intentions, he says, but because he fears the long-term repercussions.
“It’s a very different situation from 1991,” maintains Hardie, who, incidentally, says he and other members of his unit were outraged by the first President Bush’s not going after Saddam Hussein.
For one thing, in 2003 “it seems to me we have a coalition that really isn’t a coalition,” he says. “There’s a United Nations process that’s supposed to be moving forward … and yet some hawks within the administration seem determined to launch a war with or without U.N. Security Council approval.”
Moreover, “as I understand it, there are no linkages between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and the events of 9-11. And as I understand it, there are many countries in the world that are stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.”
So why this great urgency to invade Iraq? Hardie asks.
Though he shares the fears of those who believe a war might inflame the entire Mideast, Hardie says his biggest worry is that Saddam is luring us into a trap – and that he plans to unleash large amounts of low-level chemical and biological agents that will haunt U.S. troops for years to come. Similar, in other words, to what he did in 1991.
“Just think of the drain it would be on our economic system, our health care system and the problems it would cause politically,” he says.
But is Saddam Hussein that shrewd?
Hardie shrugs. “I don’t know that he necessarily planned it the first time,” he says. “But it sure wouldn’t be hard to repeat what he did – and get the exact same kind of results.”