Ghost from the Gulf :
Six years after the Gulf War, are veterans being stalked by an invisible killer?

Jan. 19, 1997
By Rod Hafemeister
Belleville News-Democrat

Six years ago today, Czech chemical-detection units in Saudi Arabia heard the first alarms.

Jasmine Battle, an oil company employee, heard the Scud missile warnings almost 400 miles away in the Saudi city of Dhahran.

About a month later, U.S. Cavalry Sgt. Oscar Russell heard the sirens on the battlefield near the Kuwait-Iraq border.

Dozens of chemical-weapons warnings jarred troops throughout the six-week Persian Gulf War, according to veterans' accounts and chemical logs kept by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's staff.

Some of the detections started with an Iraqi missile dropping from the sky. Detectors would check chemically sensitive strips of paper for color changes. Sirens would blare. And troops hurriedly cloaked themselves under gas masks and chemical-repellent suits - and wondered whether this time it was the real thing.

Those warnings were supposed to confirm allied troops' fears: The Iraqis were armed with deadly mustard and nerve agents, the same weapons that killed and maimed thousands during Iraq's eight-year war with Iran and Saddam Hussein's internal skirmishes with Kurdish rebels.

But allied combat commanders dismissed the chemical-weapons warnings as false alarms because the detections failed the first battlefield test. Nobody was dying.

Jasmine Palmore Battle never volunteered to go to war, and she never volunteered to get sick. Six years ago, she watched the Gulf War from the front row as a dental hygienist for the civilian oil company Aramco Services Co.

Today, she is fighting a brain tumor, lung failure, gynecological disease, rashes and other problems she thinks were caused by Iraqi Scud missiles and smoke from oil fires.

"I got sick right after they Scudded me. Immediately after that first Scud, I stopped having my periods - just shut down altogether," Battle said from her apartment at Scott Air Force Base, where her husband is a master sergeant.

Six years after the war, Battle is one of more than 100,000 - veterans, family members and civilians from more than a dozen nations - who blame debilitating illnesses on what has become known as Gulf War syndrome.

Statistics aren't available on how many veterans from the metro-east are sick. In fact, revelations about Gulf War syndrome have been as mysterious as the cases themselves.

After years of denials that Allied forces could have been exposed to chemical agents, the Pentagon now acknowledges some of the veterans' sicknesses might be linked to chemical weapons exposure, although it still denies Iraq actually used the weapons.

Veterans' advocates say the Pentagon and the CIA are continuing a program of half-truths, and they are demanding an independent investigation.

But everyone agrees on one thing: Something peculiar is making thousands of people like Jasmine Battle sick.

A former athlete, Battle now refuses to allow herself to be photographed because she "looks horrible."

She said the oil company she worked for assured her Saudi Arabia was safe, but when the war broke out, the company, the U.S. embassy and the Saudi government forced her and hundreds of oil workers to stay.

Aramco officials couldn't be reached through a Houston office because a phone number isn't listed for the company.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1989, the company gathered passports and told workers they could leave only if they quit, Battle aid, and the Saudi government refused to issue exit visas.

Then, the company issued each worker a gas mask.

"Why would they give me a gas mask if they didn't think there was going to be a problem?" she said.

For months, Battle and fellow oil workers watched the Gulf War buildup, sometimes opening their homes to the troops. When the air war started Jan. 17, 1991, civilian workers had to stay in their apartments because no one
arranged access to bunkers.

A couple of days later, the Scuds started falling on Dhahran. "We were outside and looked up in the sky. When one exploded, a mist fell over me and it burned like fire," she said.

The Scuds became frequent visitors. Some of the workers began trapping cats and birds and leaving them outside at night.

"When you got up in the morning, if it was dead, you knew you shouldn't go outside," she said.

Others told her their chemical-detector paper had changed color - a possible indication of chemical weapons in the environment.

Soon, black clouds of toxic smoke replaced Scuds that once lit up the Saudi sky. Workers choked on the fumes from the burning Kuwaiti oil fields, which Saddam Hussein's defeated troops bombed in a last-ditch front of environmental warfare.

"We called 'em Black Days,'' she said. "It was just like grease. Got on your cars, in your hair - really oily."

The war ended quickly, but Battle's health problems worsened. She started having pelvic pains and breathing problems. Worse, her mind and her memory started to go.

In September 1991, she married Air Force Master Sgt. Johnny Battle, whom she had met in Dhahran before the war. No longer able to work, she prepared to return to the United States "to see a real doctor."

Shortly before she left the Middle East, the Battles discovered the extent of Jasmine's mental problems: She went to a store and bought $100 worth of walnuts, but couldn't remember the purchase. "He thought I was nuts," she said of her husband.

Back home, Battle soon became unable to work. "I was with a patient one day, and I looked down and I couldn't figure out who this man was and why he was laying here with his mouth open and what those instruments were and who was I and where was I," she said. "I ran out of there screaming.

"It's kind of like my mind just left me."

In October 1992, she was diagnosed with a tumor on the pituitary gland, which doctors are treating with medication. She's also had two gynecological surgeries and is told by doctors at Scott that her lungs are failing. "The doctor here tells me that if I overexert myself, I'm looking at a lung transplant," said Battle, holding souvenirs from the Gulf: her oil company-issued gas mask and a Scud missile fragment.

She has developed allergies to alcohol and certain metals and a rash on one foot.

Doctors are treating her symptoms, but haven't found the cause of any of her ailments, she said.

Battle said she has tried to get compensation from the oil company and has written and called the Saudi embassy in Washington numerous times, but didn't receive help.

"As a civilian, I should never have been subjected to all of this," said Battle, choking back tears. "I'm just so angry. How could they just leave me there? How? Does my life mean nothing?"

Few people dispute that some Gulf War veterans are suffering. The dispute is over why.

Initially, sick veterans couldn't persuade anyone they were sick. Vets tell stories of going to the Department of Veterans Affairs and being accused of trying to get a free ride from the government. Many military and VA doctors said most vets were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis similar to what many soldiers received after the Vietnam War.

So, many veterans decided the government must be hiding the truth. In some ways, observers say, it was:

In the last nine months, it has become clear that at least 20,000 troops might have been exposed to chemical weapons when engineers blew up the ammunition complex in March 1991, the Pentagon has acknowledged.

The Pentagon has reorganized its Persian Gulf probes and increased the number of investigators from 10 to more than 100.

Oscar Russell is one of the more than 20,000 veterans who received a letter from the Department of Defense informing him he might have been near Khamisiyah when the chemical weapons were blown up.

But Russell, who now works as a conductor for a railroad in St. Louis, has other worries. He heard chemical alarms going off during the ground war. Russell's cavalry unit was sweeping along the Iraq-Kuwait border in an M1A1 Abrams tank en route to what would be a deadly battle with Iraq's elite Republican Guards. But they hadn't yet fired a shot when their chemical detectors sounded.

"They did something that set all our chemical alarms off. We stopped and watched, and they sent the Fox out," he said.

The Fox is a lightly armored mobile chemical lab designed to detect and identify chemical agents. The Pentagon rushed a number of Foxes to the Gulf from Germany just before the war began.

"They didn't say they didn't find anything, and they didn't say they did," Russell said. "We were the cav - we kept on moving.

"Somebody said later that it was a sonic boom that set off the alarms, but how can a sonic boom cause all the alarms to go off?"

Two days later, Russell's unit routed a unit of the Iraqi Republican Guard and, Russell said, discovered an underground ammunition complex, including some rounds with the skull and crossbones sometimes used to indicate chemical weapons. The Pentagon is investigating.

Russell, 39, had been a physical training instructor in his unit. But he got out of the Army in 1994 when he no longer could keep up.

"I couldn't run; I couldn't call cadence," he said. "How can I ask my soldiers to do something when I can't do it myself?"

Russell had come home to a hero's welcome, even appearing with his newborn daughter in a USA Weekend magazine article on "Desert Storm Dads."

He has a 10 percent service-related disability rating from the VA for chronic rashes, but still is struggling to prove he has muscle twitches, headaches and memory loss. He also worries he could get sicker, endangering his new career. "I'm doing better, a lot better. I'm just concerned. I want to know what it is and what we can do about it," he said.

While many of the veterans have become self-taught experts on chemical weapons, Army Capt. Carl Baird is one of the few with strong credentials. He is a brigade chemical officer at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., who served in the Gulf with a battalion of the 101st Airborne Division and also ran an Army chemical lab.

Baird said he doesn't know what set off chemical alarms throughout the war, but he noted that the Army still has faith in the warning devices - it still uses them.

"It's possible in my mind to have a few false alarms," he said. "But even if 50 percent of them were false, there were far too many alarms for there not to have been chemicals released."

The 33-year-old Baird has become a minor celebrity on an Internet discussion group on Gulf War syndrome. And Baird is convinced some kind of chemical release is at least in part responsible for the illnesses he has.

"My record has five pages of symptoms: classical digestive tract problems, pain throughout my body, memory problems. Anyone names it, I've probably had it," he said. "That's one of the reasons I've decided the Army may not be a career for me - I'm afraid I may forget something that may get somebody killed."

Baird stops short of claiming Iraq used chemical weapons, however. "I haven't seen enough either way to make up my mind," he said.

The massive, repeated air strikes against Iraqi chemical and biological weapons plants, storage sites and dumps probably released chemicals that reached allied detectors, Baird said.

The Pentagon and CIA reject that theory. Their computer models show most sites were too far from the troops and the wind was blowing the other direction.

But James Tuite III, a former congressional investigator now doing independent research on Gulf War illnesses, said satellite imagery over several days shows a circular weather pattern swept the clouds of toxic materials back toward many of the troop concentrations.

No one knows for certain the effects of exposure to small amounts of chemical weapons over several days, but researchers now are looking into it.

Commanders in the Gulf might have ignored the alarms for the simple reason that they were missing the expected supporting evidence - soldiers suffering massive convulsions from nerve agent, what the troops call "the kickin' chicken."

Jim Brown, director of Gulfwatch, a veterans advocacy group, said unit commanders aren't to blame.

"Our mentality has been if it's nonlethal, it's a nonproblem," he said. "If it don't kill you, you don't worry about it.

"We were wrong."

 What is Gulf War syndrome?

It is the term for a collection of symptoms affecting veterans, their families and others in the area during the Persian Gulf War. Most researchers think there is not a single cause or illness. A common link in many cases appears to be neuroimmunological damage, opening the way for a variety of opportunistic infections.

How many veterans are affected?

Of the 697,000 U.S. troops who served in the Gulf, about 80,000 have registered with the Department of Defense or the Department of Veterans Affairs as having symptoms. An undetermined number of family members and civilians also have symptoms, as do veterans of some of the allied forces.

Unconfirmed reports indicate thousands of Iraqis also suffer similar symptoms.

What causes it?

 A presidential panel recently released a report indicating that physical and psychological stress might be a contributing factor, but it recommended more research.

Studies published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that a small sample of veterans suffer from apparent damage to their nervous systems that might have been caused by exposures to chemicals - singly or in combination - including chemical weapons, pills veterans took to protect themselves from chemical weapons, insect repellent and pesticides.

Other possible causes include smoke from burning oil wells, experimental vaccines, and depleted uranium, which is used in tank armor and antitank ammunition.

Were the troops gassed?

 No one has shown absolute proof that chemical weapons were used.  From the beginning of the buildup to the war, military leaders worried that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would use chemical weapons, as he did during the Iran-Iraq war and against rebels in his own country.

Iraq boasted of a variety of nerve agents and mustard agents and was said to be developing biological agents. But Pentagon officials denied during and after the war that Iraq used chemical weapons or even sent them to the area where fighting took place, despite the fact that chemical detection alarms frequently sounded after the beginning of the air war.

The position was based partly on the fact that no one died from chemical weapons at the time, although several reports tell of soldiers who were treated for chemical injuries.

But last year newly released documents revealed that U.S. forces blew up a large ammunition storage area containing chemical weapons, forcing the Pentagon to change its stand. Many veterans claim that site is one of dozens of chemical storage sites in the region.

What could the government be trying to hide?

Veterans supporters suspect the government does not want to face millions of dollars in liability claims from sick veterans. Others suggest the military doesn't want to acknowledge its chemical protection and detection equipment is inadequate. The Pentagon, the CIA and the VA consistently deny any cover-up.

Originally Published, Jan. 19, 1997 , Belleville News Democrat, Belleville, Illinois
(c) 1997, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.


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