Former troops worry about Gulf War syndrome, what weapons Saddam might use

Stars & Stripes

“I think we should have finished what we started the first time around,” said James Sylvester, 31, of Odessa, Texas, a soldier with a transportation unit in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

“I wish that we had taken care of it the first time,” said Barry Kaplan, 44, of Connecticut, who served in the Persian Gulf with the 3rd Armored Division out of Hanau, Germany. “A lot of us wanted to turn Baghdad into a suburb of New Jersey.”

The troops were stopped 11 years ago far short of Baghdad. Then President George H.W. Bush had determined that all requirements of the U.N. resolution, which simply required Iraqi forces to leave Kuwait, had been met.

The war came to a halt with Saddam Hussein still holding the reins of power, as he does to this day. And indications are that another Persian Gulf War is in the offing. Some vets even now refer to their war as “the first Gulf War.”

Desert Storm began in a patriotic furor, with troops leaving for war in a festival of red, white and blue. The air war lasted six weeks and the ground war lasted 100 hours.

The combat claimed 148 American lives. Another 467 were wounded.

And when the Johnnies came marching home again, they were met with parades and more flag-waving.

Tainted victory

But the victory has been tainted. Not only is Saddam still in place, the legacy of the Gulf War is an illness.

Nearly 200,000 of the 567,00 eligible veterans who served in the Gulf have filed disability claims with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Nearly 8,000 veterans have died.

Veterans say the Pentagon has not aggressively sought the cause for the illnesses, which they think could have been caused by anything from chemical agents in the field, to depleted uranium in ammunition or the pills and vaccinations they were given.

So, as the country prepares for another war in the same “sandbox,” some veterans have doubts about the wisdom of such an undertaking.

“I don’t see how we can send troops into that region if we say we still don’t know the reason for Gulf War illness,” said Mike Woods, 33, who is 100 percent disabled with neurological problems. He is president of the National Gulf War Resource Center, which helps veterans fight for compensation.

Steve Robinson is executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center. His conversations with vets every day almost always address the pending war.

“Those that are sick and fighting for benefits are very concerned,” he said. “Those that are not want to go back and finish the job they started in 1991.”

Robinson has sat in on congressional hearings in recent months in which the Department of Defense has admitted problems with equipment to protect troops from chemical and biological weapons and a lack of gear to treat soldiers in the field who are affected by such weapons.

The lessons from 1991, he said, have not been learned. He sees no reason to rush to war.

Cost of war

Charles Sheehan-Miles is a Gulf War veteran in Reston, Va. He also is a co-founder of Gulf War Veterans for Common Sense, which has attracted a few thousand veterans to its call for a public discussion prior to any new combat against Iraq.

Sheehan-Miles, a tanker with the 24th Infantry Division during Desert Storm, said the Administration is not talking about the cost of the war — in casualties and dollars — or what the occupation of Iraq will require.

“The fact is, if you are going to commit thousands of American lives and potentially billions of dollars, then there should be some public discussion,” he said.

He said the organization, which was formed over drinks in a local bar, is not anti-war. The members represent a range of political views.

Their common goal is a rational appraisal of what is required for any future war against Iraq, he said, and what are the possible repercussions.

“My deepest fear is that we may be the aggressors in another world war,” he said.

Kyle Bittner, 39, was a scout sniper with the Marines during the war. Now he suffers from cancer, which he claims is result of his service in the Gulf.

He said he wasn’t properly trained to use the chemical gear. He also doesn’t agree with those who think any war will be a cakewalk.

“It’s going to get ugly,” he said. “It’s not going to be an easy war. You can’t win a major campaign through the air. You still have to put people on the ground.”

Woods, too, thinks it will be a different war because the objective is different.

“Saddam knew [in 1991] we weren’t coming for him,” he said. “[This time], he’ll have absolutely no reason not to use everything in his arsenal.”

He is, he said, “scared to death for the troops” who will be asked to fight the next Gulf War.

James Sylvester’s father, Vic, a veteran of Vietnam, said a Gulf War veteran in Odessa was recently buried. The man was only 38 and left behind two young sons.

“The casualties of the Gulf War are still continuing,” he said.

And then, for sake of clarity, he added, “The first Gulf War.”

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