Dallas, Texas – Thousands of servicemen and women preparing for an attack on Iraq could face a horrifying mix of deadly chemicals and biological agents — and some veterans advocacy groups fear they aren’t as prepared as they could be.
Many researchers believe Desert Storm veterans suffering from Gulf War syndrome have provided troops now deploying to Iraq a valuable lesson at the expense of the veterans’ own health: that even low-level exposure to biochemical weapons can damage the nervous system beyond repair.
The Department of Defense asserts it’s made dramatic progress in its ability to protect American troops against chemical and biological warfare in the past 12 years. The protective gear being issued to troops deploying now is vastly improved, the agency says, and “without a doubt the best that is available in the world today.”
But some veterans and their advocates aren’t buying those assurances.
“You know, they said the same thing before 1991,” said Steve Robinson, director of the National Gulf War Resource Center.
Secretary of State Colin Powell spent 90 minutes before the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday trying to convince member nations that Iraq is hiding from U.N. inspectors stores of biochemical weapons and mobile facilities to make them.
President Bush continued to hammer the point Thursday, charging that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein “recently authorized Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons — the very weapons (he) tells the world he does not have.”
The dangers of the Iraqi arsenal are well-known to Charles Townsend, a veteran of the 1991 war with Iraq and a victim of Gulf War syndrome. His brain damage, the apparent result of exposure to low levels of sarin gas, has left him with dwindling motor control, balance problems and the inability to concentrate.
“Everyone is cannon fodder in a war,” Townsend said, shrugging. But he says he’s angry that his government sent him overseas with poor protective gear and then fought his disability claims for years, attributing his medical symptoms to stress and his imagination.
“The design of the mask I wore was 30 years old,” he said.
Veterans advocate Steve Robinson fears that many of the troops being deployed to Southwest Asia may come home in the same shape as Townsend. He points to a report issued by the U.S. General Accounting Office in October charging that 250,000 defective chemical protection suits never were accounted for and could still be in service.
“I’m concerned about the deficiencies of the equipment. I’m concerned about what (the Defense Department) did to the last vets, and I’m concerned with the next generation going over there, because they clearly have the same threat we were facing in 1991.”
Joyce Riley, a former military nurse and founder of the American Gulf War Veterans Association, takes an equally jaundiced view. She says she has gotten calls from parents of currently deployed troops relaying complaints that the newly designed gas masks don’t fit well.
“Do I think our troops are going to be safer this time? Absolutely not,” Riley said. “We have not even admitted to our veterans just how serious the previous problems are,” Riley said.
Townsend’s medical problems have grown more serious over time, like thousands of other Persian Gulf veterans who came home with a baffling assortment of symptoms that first were dismissed by Veterans Administration doctors as stress-related.
Although the VA now concedes that many Gulf War veterans share ailments such as chronic fatigue, balance and cognitive problems, the cause of those illnesses remains in dispute.
Of approximately 575,000 Gulf War veterans eligible for VA benefits, about 25 percent are certified as disabled to some degree.
The life Townsend knew before the war just slipped away over time. He’s 53 now, can’t hold down a job, can’t pursue the hobbies and sports he once loved and has trouble with mundane chores such as putting dishes on a shelf.
The Dallas man’s living room is piled knee-high with old newspapers, cardboard boxes and books. The mess clearly embarrasses him.
But those yellowing piles of debris are the crumbs he left to mark the trail he’s followed for a decade, trying to get answers for why his body turned on him.
Townsend said he arrived in the Persian Gulf region in late August 1990. A member of the 50th Signal Battalion of the Army’s 18th Airborne Corps, he was stationed at King Fahd Airport in Saudi Arabia.
During January 1991, U.S. troops stationed at the airport came under attack by Scud missiles launched by the Iraqis. U.S. troops fired Patriot missiles at the Scuds, destroying them over the heads of servicemen.
Monitors installed at the airport to “sniff” the air for toxic chemicals and biological agents went off all the time, Townsend said, but the technicians manning them always dismissed them as false alarms.
The Pentagon denied for several years after the Gulf War that American troops had been exposed to toxic chemicals, but in 1996 conceded that as many as 100,000 Gulf War veterans may have been exposed to low levels of sarin gas when U.S. troops destroyed an Iraqi munitions depot in Khamisiyah in March 1991.
UT Southwestern Medical Center epidemiologist Robert Haley, Townsend’s doctor and a renowned expert in Gulf War syndrome, believes the answer behind many health problems that veterans brought home is found in incidents such as these: exposures to levels of toxic chemicals high enough to set off alarms, but low enough that medical personnel believed at the time it was not harmful.
“The thinking at the time was that if it didn’t kill you, there was no exposure,” Haley said.
But Haley and other researchers have focused their research on low-level exposure to sarin and other toxic agents. A consensus is growing, he said, that low-level exposure may not produce immediate symptoms, but can produce late-onset brain damage.
Sarin is a colorless, odorless and tasteless nerve gas that can be inhaled or absorbed very rapidly into human skin. The powerful toxin disrupts the nervous system — in lethal doses frequently suffocating its victims by paralyzing the muscles around the lungs.
Sarin was used by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in the 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 12 people and sent 5,000 to hospitals. Haley says symptoms experienced by many veterans suffering from Gulf War syndrome are identical to those experienced by the Tokyo sarin victims.
Using sophisticated scanning equipment that measures chemical concentrations in the brain, Haley has determined that Townsend suffered brain damage consistent with exposure to sarin gas.
What Haley calls “the clinching evidence” came in October from the University of New Mexico, where researchers exposed laboratory rats to low levels of sarin for five to 10 days. The rats suffered no immediate problems but 30 days later showed evidence of brain damage.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi last month asked the Institute of Medicine to study whether findings in the New Mexico study “hold true for humans in the Persian Gulf.”
Principi’s interest in the New Mexico research is a major breakthrough for sick Gulf War veterans, Haley said. He believes his own research has determined why some veterans were sickened after exposure to toxins, while some were not: People with higher levels of paraoxanase, a naturally occurring enzyme, appeared to have a higher tolerance to sarin exposure.
His research team has been able to isolate the paraoxanase gene and inject it into mice — which doubled the enzyme level in the test animals.
“We made them invulnerable,” Haley said, but coming up with a vaccine to immunize people against the effects of sarin is years away.
The only protection available to U.S. troops against many chemical and biological weapons comes in the form of suits, masks and air monitors. But an investigation ordered by Congress into the Department of Defense’s chemical and biological defense capabilities, reported by the GAO last October, raised several troubling points:
· 250,000 defective protective suits that cannot be accounted for
· a complex, error-prone process — essentially, record-keeping problems in the field — that precludes the DOD from being able to accurately identify the location and condition of available protective gear
· inadequate chemical defense training for ground troops
· a potential shortage of protective gear if the United States were forced to simultaneously fight two military engagements.
“We’ve put a lot of priority and emphasis on improving the protection that we provide to the individual service member,” said Department of Defense spokesman Donald Sewell. He noted improved chemical protection suits, better-fitting gas masks with filters that are easier to change, and a variety of fixed and mobile systems for detecting chemical and biological agents.
The Defense Department takes all GAO reports very seriously, he said, and has “initiated substantial corrective actions to address those concerns.”
Sewell said the Defense Logistics Agency determined that all of the chemical suits found to be defective in 2000 (produced by manufacturer Isratex) were being stored in warehouses in Albany, Ga.
But the GAO report spelled out that out of the 778,924 defective suits the DLA was trying to locate, 250,000 could not be accounted for.
The Department of Defense believes the armed services and Defense Logistics Agency “have identified all the Isratex (suits) that still exist and that the 250,000 that cannot be accounted for have been consumed and disposed of,” Sewell said.
Veterans advocate Robinson says that explanation is not good enough. “We’re going to take this risk knowing we have serious deficiencies in equipment and the threat is the same as it was in 1991,” Robinson said. “And you’ve got some PR spokesman from DOD saying we’re the best-equipped fighting force on the planet.”
“That’s probably true,” Robinson said. “But are we ready?”