Gulf War Veterans Watch and Worry

New York Times

Fretfully, obsessively and suspiciously, they watch this new war unfold and recall what they went through a decade ago: recurrent medical problems, bureaucratic headaches and a tough transition back to their former lives. This time, they say, they are determined to find ways to ease the transition for veterans returning from the war in Iraq.

“The biggest problem I’ve been having is watching history repeat itself,” said Jim Brown, 39, a mechanic in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in 1991.

Despite flashbacks and anxiety attacks since the start of the new war, Mr. Brown says, he keeps his television tuned to coverage and listens to radio news when he drives.

“I’m interested in watching to make sure no mistakes are made,” said Mr. Brown, who lives in Gastonia, N.C., about 20 miles west of here. “That is the highest calling of any veteran.”

For many 1991 veterans watching from the sidelines, the new war has brought painful memories and conflicting feelings.

The veterans say they fret not only about this country’s mission in Iraq but also about their own responsibilities to a younger generation of soldiers facing battle for the first time.

Some are trying to find ways to help the new generation. Michael Woods, 34, a former Army mechanic from Kissimmee, Fla., who received a medical discharge and is partly paralyzed in one leg, is documenting what is being broadcast on television from Iraq.

“I’m watching because when we came back, one of the main things gulf war vets had wished is that people had archived events, stories and exposures,” said Mr. Woods, president of the National Gulf War Resource Center, a support group for veterans.

“I’m writing everything: what reporters say, when troops are entering into what areas, that type of thing,” he said. “I know when I was there that was the last thing on my mind, trying to remember where I was at and when.”

Mr. Woods said the information would be critical to soldiers who developed symptoms of exposure to chemicals but were unsure where they were exposed.

“They’re still being exposed to a lot of the same environmental hazards,” he said. “The oil well fires — gulf war vets were exposed to that — and then it is a chemically dirty battlefield to start with. When they are exposed to sand storms, it stirs up everything in the soil.”

He added: “We’re trying to save some kind of history for them in case they need it, because it was real difficult getting that information from the Defense Department. With these embedded reporters, that’s making it a whole lot easier at least following some of the troops. I feel like I’m doing something to help.”

Some gulf war veterans said they did not trust the military to protect the soldiers better this time. Others said they were proud of the current troops but found it too hard to watch the war on television.

“My wife turns on the TV and calls me over to watch,” said Mark Zeller, 40, of Dahlonega, Ga., near Atlanta. “She keeps telling me I should come watch because I wasn’t around to watch it on TV last time.”

But for Mr. Zeller, who was a staff sergeant with the 101st Airborne Division in the gulf war, the images are too painful.

“I just try to get out of here,” he said. “I take my shower, get my clothes on and get in the car and leave. I can’t even listen to the radio. They’re talking about it there, too. It’s just better for my mental health to stay away from it.”

Since the start of the war in Iraq, some support groups say calls from gulf war veterans with symptoms of anxiety and depression have increased.

Some veterans report feeling helpless because they are not on the front lines with the current soldiers, the groups say.

“They’ve got double problems because they are reliving all of the anxiety of deploying, and they’re also reliving the fact that they don’t feel these troops are being protected,” said Joyce Riley, spokeswoman for the American Gulf War Veterans Association who has accused the military of disregarding the health of soldiers in the 1991 war.

Ms. Riley says calls from distressed gulf war veterans have doubled since the start of the war in Iraq, to about 20 a day on average.

“The ones that are calling are so upset they don’t know what else to do,” she said.

Experts on post-traumatic stress say it takes little to cause flashbacks, sleeplessness and anxiety in veterans.

“Combat veterans could have experiences retriggered just from, for example, being in heavy rain, which could remind them of when they were in a monsoon,” said Dr. Gary Kohls, a family doctor and psychology professor at the University of Minnesota in Duluth who has treated gulf war veterans. “Certain smells or sounds might also retrigger the experience. Watching it on TV is definitely a big one. Visual images are probably the strongest ones.”

Doug Rokke, 53, of Rantoul, Ill., about 160 miles south of Chicago, was a physicist on a team that helped clean up contamination in the gulf war. Mr. Rokke, a Vietnam veteran and an Army Reserve major, said he feared televising the conflict had left many people oblivious to war’s harshness and effects on soldiers.

“Everybody forgets war is about killing and destroying,” Mr. Rokke said. “You’re physically changed forever, and you’re psychologically changed forever. People think this is a computer game where you come back famous and wealthy. It’s not about that. War is death. When the war is over and the troops return, they will need psychological and medical care, just like the rest of us who have gone to wars.”

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