For war veterans backed by Boston University study, symproms all too real.
December 15, 2008 – Tara Batista says she cannot ever recall her phone number. But she can remember clearly what she was like before she drove an ambulance through the deserts and combat zones of Saudi Arabia in the winter of 1991.
“I was 19; I was healthy,” she said in a recent phone interview. As a combat medic during the Gulf War, Batista, who now lives in Fitchburg, stood in clouds of pesticides and, under orders, took a little white pill twice a day as a precaution against a chemical attack.
Today, she says, the smell of perfume or a new car makes her lose the ability to speak, and triggers dry heaves, weakness, and pain that rises through her body like a shiver. She has recurring sinus infections and night sweats.
Last year, she contemplated killing herself.
Batista, 38, now a nurse at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, says she was told by a Veterans Affairs doctor after she returned from Saudi Arabia that she had symptoms shared by other Gulf War veterans, but that benefits claims would not be approved if her records listed “Gulf War illness.” Instead, the doctor entered “undiagnosed illness,” with symptoms of sinus infections and migraines.
For more than a decade, federal officials have denied that sick veterans of the Gulf War share a distinct illness. But a 452-page federal report by an independent committee of scientists and veterans, released last month by the Boston University School of Public Health, found that at least 174,000 veterans, or 1 in 4 people deployed by the US military to the Persian Gulf in 1990 and 1991, have Gulf War illness, manifesting in a range of symptoms, probably caused by pesticide exposure and an experimental drug that hundreds of thousands were ordered to take as a precaution against chemical attack.
The drug, pyridostigmine bromide, and certain pesticides used during the war to keep fleas and sand flies at bay affect the central nervous system, the report found, and are associated with memory and focus problems, persistent headaches, respiratory and digestion problems, and “widespread pain.” The report concludes that there are no effective treatments, and that the conditions of afflicted veterans have remained static or worsened in the nearly 18 years since the Gulf War ended.
“The physical symptoms are real and not in people’s heads,” said Roberta White, the scientific director for the committee, which began its evaluation of Gulf War research and programs in 2002.
“The significance of the report is that it reviews study after study after study that show there is a constellation of symptoms that people who were deployed to the Gulf War experience more than any other group,” said White, who is associate dean for research at Boston University’s School of Public Health.
Pentagon and Veterans Affairs officials have publicly denied on numerous occasions that a specific Gulf War condition exists. In July 2007, Lawrence Deyton, chief public health and environmental hazards officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs, testified before a House committee that sick Gulf War veterans were “suffering from a wide variety of common, recognized illnesses,” but that no unique malady could be identified.
Reports on Gulf War veterans that the Department of Veterans Affairs commissioned from the Institute of Medicine have concluded that there is no proof the veterans are ill as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals. But those studies, the new report finds, overlooked key evidence, including the fact that animal studies were not taken into consideration in drawing conclusions, as is normally done with such research.
“We were in a toxic bowl of soup,” said Ed Bryan, a disabled former firefighter from Malden, who was sent to the Persian Gulf by the Army in 1990. “I didn’t have a magnifying glass in Desert Storm to read the ingredients on the pesticides they gave us. I would’ve never put those on my uniform or the back of my neck.” When Bryan was stationed at a seaport in Saudi Arabia, he began to lose his ability to taste food. After he returned, he had chronic diarrhea, which eventually led to a stomach operation. He still has headaches and diarrhea, and doctors say there is no treatment. “It’s devastating,” he said.
Cynthia O. Smith, spokeswoman for the Department of Defense, said the military now documents the concentration of pesticides used in “any location,” but no records were kept of pesticide levels in tents and camps during the Gulf War. The committee report found that many of the pesticides used in the Gulf War are still used by military personnel in the Middle East, but in much lower concentrations.
Smith said the Gulf War was the first time the experimental drug was given to military personnel for protection against chemical attack. “It was believed at the time that the Iraqis had weaponized soman and sarin,” she said, which are two nerve agents. The Food and Drug Administration has since approved the drug, taken by about half the US military personnel in the Gulf War, according to the report, for prevention against soman’s effects, but not for sarin. Doctors now believe the drug exacerbates neurological damage when combined with sarin. In the current war in Iraq, some military personnel carry the pills but are not ordered to take them regularly.
“They never should have been taken without informed consent,” said George Annas, a health law and bioethics professor at Boston University who has researched the use of experimental drugs in the military.
Jim Benson of the Department of Veterans Affairs said Gulf War veterans have received treatment, even though Gulf War illness “never passed the scientific test” as a syndrome. The BU report shows that the federal government has spent millions of dollars in research and treatment for Gulf War veterans, but concludes it has not been sufficient.
Thousands of Gulf War veterans are waiting for answers. Some, like Paul Perrone, who worked in law enforcement for the Air Force during the war and now lives in Hampstead, N.H., say the report’s findings give them hope.
“We’re finally getting the government to admit that we are sick because of what happened to us during the Gulf War,” said Perrone. “The doctors can no longer say, ‘We don’t believe you.’ “