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But Robert W. Haley, a researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, whose studies of brain damage in Gulf War veterans in the early 1990s were financed by Ross Perot because the Clinton White House, the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs (VA) refused to believe Gulf War syndrome existed, disagrees. "These guys are really sick, but there's no illness that shows up on tests or that can be diagnosed. It's like chronic fatigue syndrome. Well-meaning doctors say all the tests are normal and they can't conclude anything."
Haley, his colleagues at Texas Southwestern and researchers at Duke University and UC San Diego have found both brain and nerve damage in animals and humans who've had multiple chemical exposures — including the pesticide chlorpyrifos, used in flea collars worn by some soldiers; low levels of sarin; DEET, an insect repellant used widely in the Gulf; and PB, or pyridostigmine bromide, an anti-nerve-agent medicine the Pentagon gave soldiers in the Gulf. DEET, PB and the same pesticide-impregnated combat gear have all been issued to troops now being sent to Iraq.
Recently, there's been some breach in the Pentagon's denial of the effects of sarin. Last month, scientists working on an Army study found that animals exposed to low levels of sarin gas showed brain changes and immune-system suppression days after an original exposure had seemed to show no bad reaction. The VA, which under Bush appointee Anthony Principi has been more sympathetic to Gulf War veterans and the idea of Gulf War syndrome, immediately called for a review of the research to see if it might apply to humans.
What the "war is hell" platitude means to the Pentagon, says one Gulf War vet who doesn't want his name used because he works for the federal government, is that it doesn't have to pay much attention to how soldiers might be hurt by toxins. "I was vaccinated for smallpox and anthrax before I left the States for Desert Storm," he says. "No one told me these things had side effects which might be dangerous. When I got to Europe, there were no records I had had the shots stateside, so they made me get them all over again. Same story when I arrived in the Gulf. I got them a third time. All within two months. Now they say one set can cause long-term problems."
Robert Haley says that the lack of records shouldn't be an excuse for dismissing Gulf War veterans' illnesses. "You never have records in an epidemic. You had none for toxic shock syndrome. You had none for Legionnaire's disease or AIDS. You interview the sick and trace it back." But the fact remains that proving the aftereffects of serving on a toxic battlefield in a direct cause-and-effect way is as impossible to prove as what the effects of "multiple chemical exposures" are on all of us on the home front.
The Pentagon is playing the numbers game yet again with exposures to depleted uranium (DU). Dan Fahey, who spent years filing Freedom of Information Act requests and writing an extensive report about depleted uranium for the NGWRC, investigated the Desert Storm "friendly fire" accidents in which U.S. tanks were hit by DU rounds fired by other Americans. DU is a critical weapon to the Pentagon. ("Depleted" means that the fissionable element 235 has been removed from the metal. DU tank shells or bullets are harder, denser and burn hotter than steel or lead, and are able to slice through a tank's armor like a hot knife through butter. In the first Gulf War, 83 percent of the DU was fired from A-10 attack planes.) Fahey found Defense Department documents that refer to fears that the public concern about the health and environmental effects of DU might make its use "politically unacceptable."
When the "friendly fire" exposures were first raised, the Pentagon claimed that only 35 soldiers had been exposed to depleted uranium. But Fahey counted 122 from his Freedom of Information Act data, so the Defense Department upped the number to 113. It now admits that "866 to 932" troops were heavily exposed and "thousands" of others breathed in DU around the destroyed tanks. And so it goes. Only a few dozen of the exposed have had their health studied. But no one has any idea how many soldiers were exposed to DU dust, which vets who worked around the tanks remember brushing off like beach sand from their uniforms and tanks.
"It's the same old story all the way back to Agent Orange — the [Defense Department] and the VA concealing evidence, skewing the studies, denying vets' claims," says Fahey. Although he dismisses the recent statements of Iraqi doctors and scientists claiming that Iraq is "contaminated" from DU and has soaring cancer rates from it as "unsupported by any facts at all," Fahey warns that "We use this stuff and we have no idea at all what its long-term effects are."
As we are poised to go to war, hundreds of thousands of American troops are being vaccinated for smallpox and anthrax. Several hundred have refused to take the anthrax vaccine, which both the General Accounting Office and the Shays subcommittee concluded in 1999 does not protect people from anthrax. (Those troops who refuse the vaccine are being court-martialed or given dishonorable discharges.) Robinson remembers what it was like getting his anthrax vaccine in 1991. "Within hours after I got the first shot, I had to be strapped to a cot and stood upright to get the fluids out of my lungs. They had me that way for three days. I had no idea what this was about. When I got back, still suffering from asthma, shortness of breath — and I still do to this day — I still had no idea. There were no records I had even had the vaccination. And I still have no idea, even today."