Gulf War vets hope errors not repeated

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Posted by Tony from ( on Sunday, September 29, 2002 at 11:12AM :

[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 9/25/02 ]

Gulf War vets hope errors not repeated
Many say GIs in '91 weren't told of risks of battlefield toxins

Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Veterans of the Persian Gulf War say they are leery of a second foray into the region because of the unexplained deaths and illnesses of so many of their comrades since the end of that conflict.

Even those who back the Bush administration's efforts to topple Saddam Hussein are cautioning the military not to repeat the mistakes it made the first time, said Steve Robinson, executive director of the Washington-based National Gulf War Resource Center.

"Gulf War veterans who are still serving or those who have left the service and are not ill are more inclined to say: 'Let's finish the job we started in 1991,' " Robinson said Tuesday.

But he added that those who are suffering from what has become known as Gulf War Illness are less inclined to support a second war there.

About 700,000 American troops served in the Persian Gulf region during Operation Desert Storm. Of those, 148 were killed in action and 467 wounded.

But since the end of the war, nearly 7,800 Desert Storm veterans have died, according to an April 2002 report from the Department of Veterans Affairs. And nearly 200,000, about 28 percent of all those who were deployed to the region, have filed claims with the VA for medical problems and compensation.

Distrust of the official line

Exactly why all those troops have died or gotten ill remains a mystery, said Robinson, a former Army Ranger. He and other Gulf War vets think the Pentagon has not done enough to find the causes before embarking on another war in the region.

Those who served during Desert Storm point to a variety of possible causes for the deaths and illnesses.

They include exposure to biological and chemical weapons, depleted uranium from ammunition, pesticides and smoke from oil well fires. In addition, they say, the effects of various vaccines and medications that they were required to take, including inoculations for anthrax, have not been fully investigated.

"We're still getting a handle on what happened 11 years ago, and we shouldn't enter into this new war ignoring those questions that haven't been answered," Robinson said.

Many Gulf War vets have mixed feelings about the government because of the unresolved issues from their service, Charles Sheehan-Miles said. A native of Atlanta, Sheehan-Miles served as a tank crew member with the 24th Infantry Division (mechanized) during the war.

"I don't know of many Gulf War vets who trust the government," said Sheehan-Miles, an author and computer technician now living in Reston, Va.

Health screenings skipped?

Robinson said another issue the government has not addressed is the effectiveness of protective gear and detection devices, in the event Saddam Hussein unleashes biological and chemical weapons, as the administration says he is capable of doing.

The Pentagon originally denied that chemical or biological weapons were used in the first Gulf War. The 14,000 alerts by the military's primary detection device were said to be false positives, but those detectors are still in use, Robinson said.

"It seems silly for them to waste money sending that stuff over there again, when they said all of those alerts were false alarms," Sheehan-Miles said.

In 1997, the Pentagon admitted that the nerve agent sarin was among munitions destroyed after the war. As many as 140,000 troops had been exposed in what Robinson calls "the largest friendly fire incident in history."

Concerns raised by Gulf War veterans prompted Congress to enact a law titled Force Health Protection. It requires all soldiers to undergo health screenings before they deploy, while they are deployed and after they return home.

"This law is being ignored even now with the troops in Afghanistan," Robinson said, adding that he has no evidence that it will be enforced for troops that might fight in Iraq.

"We're not trying to prevent another war with Iraq," Robinson said. "We are trying to prevent the same mistakes from being made on a new generation of Gulf War veterans."

-- Tony
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