SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE - Jim Reichert doesn't know what it was, but something he encountered during the Gulf War made him terribly sick.
Reichert, an Army reservist from Columbia, served in Operation Desert Storm as a Blackhawk helicopter crew chief with the 7th Battalion 158th Aviation Regiment.
The battalion, based at Scott Air Force Base, was one of the busiest helicopter units, active or reserve, in the gulf theater and even flew Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and his staff to the cease-fire conference.
Since returning from the gulf in 1991, most of the veterans say they have had problems with rashes, memory loss, joint pains, diarrhea - a long list of symptoms generally lumped together as Gulf War Illness or Gulf War Syndrome.
But ask them for somebody who is really sick, and most will say, "Talk to Jim."
Reichert can even tell you the flight in March 1991 that made him sick. "It was the first or second of March," he recalled. "We flew into Kuwait City, which had just been liberated."
The next morning, Reichert and the three other members of his Blackhawk crew were briefed for a special mission - carrying a biological testing team.
"They were supposed to investigate enemy ordnance that no one could identify," Reichert said. "One of the enlisted guys asked us, 'Have you been taking your pills?'"
Troops weren't supposed to take the pills - a collection of medications intended to protect troops from chemical and biological weapons - until ordered. The bio-test team told them to take a double dose right away.
"He said maybe we could get enough of it into our system. It usually takes a minimum of eight hours," Reichert said.
The crew flew to an Iraqi airfield that had been blasted by the war.
"These huge bunkers had been hit by artillery shells. There was stuff scattered all over," Reichert said. "We landed about two miles away and the technicians put on suits. They told us to put on our chemical suits but not our masks."
The bio-test team was wearing a different type of suit from the standard chemical suit. They began collecting soil and air samples - and samples from the dead animals that littered the area.
"There was nothing there alive," Reichert said.
The most striking thing was the dead flies, he said. Normally, flies were inescapable, buzzing around the troops. Here, they all were dead.
"I saw an artillery shell lying on the ground. It was fizzing," he said.
"There was another lying in a pool of liquid seeping from the shell.
I called the technicians and they told us, 'Just leave. Put on your masks
and get out of here.'" The team visited several other sites that day before
returning to a rear area. There, they did something that disturbs Reichert
"They took their suits off and burned them. They took their masks, they took their BDUs (fatigues) - they burned them all. They pulled out clean uniforms and put them on.
"We kept our suits. We just had one."
The technicians said they wouldn't be able to tell what, if anything, they found until they conducted tests back at the laboratory, Reichert said.
Nobody ever told him what they found.
Within days, Reichert was hit with severe diarrhea - several times a day and continuing until today. In fact, he can remember the day in December 1994 when he had his first solid bowel movement in more than three years. He has periodic attacks of blisters on his right hand.
"It itches, it turns red and you can just watch the blisters form, 'bloop, bloop.' After they pop, you can peel them like an orange."
He also suffers from joint pain, muscle spasms, sudden erratic heartbeats after exercise, severe memory loss and a weak immune system that leaves him susceptible to infections.
He's been fighting for more than two years to get the Veterans Administration to certify him as having a service-connected problem.
At one point, a VA doctor told him that nobody could have diarrhea that long and accused him of trying to extort money from the government.
In recent months, a growing recognition of the problems of Gulf War vets has caused the military and the VA to reconsider their earlier attempts to dismiss Gulf War Syndrome as a myth.
Estimates vary, but between 50,000 and 100,000 Gulf War veterans and their families complain of problems they believe were caused by their service in the gulf. Some think they were exposed to chemical or biological weapons.
Dr. Steven Joseph, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said earlier this year that he still has not seen "persuasive evidence that there were chemical or biological weapons used in the gulf."
Others disagree. Former U.S. Sen. Donald Riegle concluded last year
that at least some soldiers
in the gulf were exposed to chemical and possibly biological weapons.
On July 16, the Belleville News-Democrat reported that a top cancer researcher believes thousands of veterans may be infected with disease created in a U.S. laboratory and sold to Iraq.
Reichert doesn't know if he's a victim of chemical or biological weapons. But he knows those were not normal artillery shells he saw in March 1991.
"All I know is, artillery shells don't fizz and they don't ooze," he said.
"They go 'bang.' That's all they're supposed to do, is go 'bang.'"
Originally Published, July 23, 1995 , Belleville News Democrat,
(c) 1995, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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