World & Nation
AP The Wire
Comics & Games
Home & Garden
Advertise with the Times
Sick of war
By JEANNE MALMGREN, Times Staff Writer
As the nation slides toward war with Iraq, most of us watch the news nervously, wondering how soon U.S. soldiers might be sent to the Persian Gulf.
Ray Lurch and Wally Heath feel something different, something a bit more personal. Call it mixed feelings.
As patriots who have already served their country during wartime, they support President Bush's call to arms. But they hope no soldiers who fight in this war will come home sick, as they did.
"It's horrible what happened to us," said Lurch, 35, who lives in Largo. "I hope (the military) learned some lessons out of that."
Heath, 55, of Tampa, agrees. "They'd better have (soldiers) better-protected than we were when we were over there," he said.
Lurch and Heath are among an estimated 100,000 veterans of Operation Desert Storm who later developed mysterious gastrointestinal troubles, joint pain, severe rashes, headaches, depression, sleeping difficulties and memory problems. Those ailments, at first dismissed by many government officials as post-traumatic stress disorder, eventually were grouped together under the label Gulf War syndrome. Although hundreds of studies have failed to pinpoint what caused the syndrome, there are theories ranging from nerve gas to vaccines.
Heath, a former Hillsborough sheriff's deputy who lost a brother in the Vietnam War, served in the Navy during Desert Storm. For six months, he hauled heavy equipment and delivered supplies in the Iraqi desert. Today, Heath is unable to work.
He takes 15 prescriptions, including the strong painkiller Percocet, six times a day. He has trouble breathing, sleeping and digesting. He has had two cataracts and a retinal detachment. He lost his sense of smell.
"I used to run 11/2 miles, three times a week. Now I couldn't run from here to my front yard," he said.
Lurch, an Army helicopter mechanic, got sick even before his tour of duty in northern Iraq ended. Headaches, aching joints, fatigue, memory loss, incessant coughing. He said many of his fellow soldiers had the same problems.
"We had all the symptoms of a nerve gas attack," he said.
Lurch was hospitalized several times after he got home. At one point, doctors told him he had only days to live. He started taking doxycycline, a powerful antibiotic that made him better but also weakened him in much the same way chemotherapy sickens cancer patients. Eventually he had to stop using it.
Now Lurch relies on natural remedies to stay as well as he can. He spends $50 to $100 a month on a battery of vitamins and trace minerals, and uses magnets in his shoes and his mattress to stave off chronic joint pain. He avoids luncheon meats and artificially sweetened foods -- "anything with chemicals in it."
Tens of thousands of Gulf war veterans, including Heath and Lurch, receive disability for medical problems that began during and immediately after their military service in the Middle East. Many spouses, including Heath's wife, Diana, suffer reproductive problems. Others delivered babies with birth defects or other problems. Lurch's daughter, Jacqueline, now 9, suffered severe headaches as a toddler.
Several books have been written alleging a Pentagon coverup of the causes of Gulf War syndrome. Senate hearings were held. President Clinton convened a White House commission to examine the issue. For many Desert Storm veterans, it was too little, too late.
"We estimate 15,000 guys died during the first five years (after the Gulf War)," said Dave vonKleist, director of the American Gulf War Veterans Association in Versailles, Mo.
And now the United States stands on the brink of another war in the same region, against the same opponent.
"The majority of people contacting us say, 'What, go back over there? Are we nuts?"' vonKleist said. "We know what chemicals are there, what biologicals are there."
Like many Americans, Lurch sees another war with Saddam Hussein as inevitable. The job started in 1991 needs to be finished, he thinks.
"Otherwise, what are we suffering for?" he said.
Still, he is bitter about what he sees as his government's indifference to the plight of veterans with Gulf War syndrome.
"I won't fly the flag until I get an apology from (Desert Storm Commander Norman) Schwarzkopf," he said. "I want a personal phone call from him. He was the one responsible. Period."
Schwarzkopf, who retired from the military several years ago and lives in Tampa, was out of the country earlier this week and unavailable for comment.
Heath is angry, too.
"We got no information," he said. "We asked about protective gear for the chemicals. We were told there's nothing to it."
Heath drove a tractor-trailer in the war, delivering captured Iraqi tanks to a port in Saudi Arabia. Many of the tanks had been hit by shells containing depleted uranium, which is radioactive.
"We'd climb all over them, loading them, tying them down. And then after we delivered them to the port, they would decontaminate them."
Lurch, meanwhile, often saw smoke from exploding caches of Iraqi weapons, just across a hillside from his base.
"Sometimes it was a black plume that dissipated quickly, sometimes it was a white plume that hung around for hours. We had chemical suits in the warehouse, but we were told we didn't need to wear them. Then, one day, our commanding officer found all the M9 (chemically reactive) paper we had stored with the suits -- it had all been activated. My buddies who were in southern Iraq, they said they had chemical alarms going off all the time, but their company leaders said they were false alarms."
In 1996, Lurch started a support group in his living room for other Gulf War syndrome sufferers. It didn't last long.
"It was just too painful, seeing how sick we all were," he said. "It made me worse."
He said he has lost count of how many of his wartime friends died, including his platoon sergeant.
Both Lurch and Heath receive partial disability pay from the Veterans Administration. Lurch is rated 30 percent disabled. He works fulltime, running a floor-polishing business.
Heath is 100 percent disabled according to the Social Security Administration, but only receives 80 percent disability -- $917 a month -- from the VA.
"And I had to fight for that for eight years," he said. "I filed in June of 1994, when I first had to quit working, and if you can believe this, I just got it last month. Last month."
As the fight continues for veterans such as Heath and Lurch, a new war looms. Recently, on one of the few remaining Desert Storm Internet chat rooms, someone posed the million-dollar question: Should we send soldiers back to the Persian Gulf?
The discussion turned into an advice-fest for people drafted into the second Gulf war.
"Do not trust anyone," someone wrote. "Do not take any pills or shots. Refuse any vaccinations."
Someone else confessed that even though he has Gulf War syndrome, he supports another campaign against Saddam Hussein. With the same uneasy blend of bitterness and loyalty surrounding Heath and Lurch, he wrote:
"Our government used the Gulf War vets as guinea pigs. They know what they did to us. . . . I hope I live to see the day our government tells us what really happened to us in the Gulf. GOD BLESS AMERICA."
Another person didn't feel so patriotic:
"I hear Canada is nice this time of year."
What caused Gulf War syndrome?
What caused the illness and deaths of so many Desert Storm veterans? Government officials, medical researchers and veterans groups have debated the question for 10 years. Here are some of the theories floated:
EXPERIMENTAL DRUGS AND VACCINES. Thousands of Persian Gulf War troops received inoculations against anthrax and an experimental botulinum toxoid vaccine. They also were required to take pyridostigmine bromide, or PB, pills, which were supposed to protect them against nerve gas.
OIL WELL FIRES. Hundreds of thousands were constantly exposed to the polluting smoke from burning oil wells.
CHEMICAL WARFARE AGENTS. Many soldiers were contaminated when Allied troops blew up Iraqi weapons caches. At one 1991 explosion at an arms depot called Kamisiyah, U.S. troops wearing no protective gear were exposed to sarin, cyclosarin and mustard gases.
DEPLETED URANIUM MUNITIONS. Tens of thousands were exposed to this nuclear waste byproduct that was used in tank armor and shell casings.
-- Sources: National Gulf War Resource Center; Times files
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.