November 18, 2008 – One of the most dangerous threats to the health of American troops in combat might be the United States government. That conclusion can reasonably be drawn after a government panel reported that one in four U.S. veterans of the 1991 Gulf War – about 172,000 troops – is ill from exposure to toxic chemicals, most of them administered by the U.S. government.
For years, the government has resisted persistent claims by thousands of Gulf War veterans that their service there had somehow sickened them. Symptoms included forgetfulness, persistent headaches and fatigue, pain, digestive problems and other maladies.
The federal government studied the complaints, and veterans have gotten some help. But funding for Gulf War-related illnesses has dropped in recent years. There also have been skeptics about whether there really was a Gulf War illness.
But the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses, set up by Congress to review all studies done on Gulf War illness, found serious gaps and concluded in a report to be presented this week:
“The extensive body of scientific research now available consistently indicates that ‘Gulf War’ illness is real, that it is the result of neurotoxic exposures during Gulf War deployment, and that few veterans have recovered or substantially improved with time.”
The troops were not sickened by Iraqi chemicals. Instead, the advisory committee said, it found that a drug called pyridostigmine bromide, administered as a tablet to U.S. troops to offset the effects of nerve gas (which the Iraqis never used), was “causally associated” with Gulf War illness symptoms.
In addition, it said pesticides also were found to cause Gulf War illness. Pesticides were sprayed in areas where troops were based to ward off sand flies, and some soldiers said they were ordered to dunk their uniforms in the pesticide DEET and to spray pesticide on exposed skin and in their boots to deter scorpions.
The panel said it could not draw a conclusion on whether the huge oil well fires set in Iraq had also contributed to the poisoning of the troops.
This is not the first time American troops have been unintentionally poisoned by their own commanders. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military sprayed large amounts of a herbicide, Agent Orange, across thousands of acres to clear them of vegetation and thus deny cover to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers. But thousands of American troops also inhaled or were covered by Agent Orange and sickened by it, and are still sick today.
Of course, American commanders in both wars were not attempting to harm their own troops. Nevertheless, they ended up doing a great deal of damage to many of the troops who took ill and have lived with the consequences ever since, as have their families.
The government – that is, taxpayers – has a clear-cut obligation to care for these sickened troops, and the cost could be high. And in the future, U.S. commanders must be far more conservative about using chemical warfare, even if only in defense.