LEBANON - William White once harbored visions of playing in the National Football League.
Now, White has visions of his own death.
They come to him when he sleeps. He dreams that he's drowning in a pool of water, or that someone is holding something over his nose so he can't breath.
Just as he's about to black out, White is jolted upright in bed. Sweat pours off his forehead. He gasps for air.
"My wife's become a very light sleeper since this has started happening," said White, a 6-foot-2, 295-pound defensive lineman for the McKendree College football team.
White, 27, has been diagnosed with chronic asthma. His palms and wrists are covered with blisters and open sores. His hands are always sweaty and itchy. When he tries to grab something in a firm power grip, the pain is excruciating.
"It's irritating because I'm not used to having to deal with stuff like that," said White, who also has suffered memory loss and sweats profusely even when he's not exercising.
White's doctors at the Veterans Administration hospital in St. Louis have decided his problems stem from his service as an Army Ranger in the Persian Gulf War and have certified him as having a service-connected disability. One doctor wrote that White was probably exposed to arsenic. Arsenic is the base for several types of deadly blister agents called arsenicals.
Little is known about the long-term effects of exposure to arsenicals. But four weeks ago, White's VA doctor told him that his progressively worsening asthma will shave 30 to 35 years off his life.
"It never goes away," said White. "Eventually, I'll end up using oxygen, and eventually that won't do any good."
That week, McKendree was playing the University of Evansville. White sat out the game (which McKendree rallied to win 30-26), not because of the asthma - because of the prediction.
He thought about Jacquelin, his second wife, whom he married three years ago. He thought about his children - Victor, 7, and 10-month-old Caelin. He thought about finally playing college football again while pursuing his degree in biology and religious studies.
His life was finally back in order. Why Gulf War Syndrome? Why now?
"I probably wasn't a
good person to be around at that time," White said. "It was hard, but I thought about it a lot that week.
"I consider myself to be not a tough guy, but a survivor. I'll survive it. I'm not going to let this beat me. I've been through enough already."
Growing up in East St. Louis, White was a standout two-way lineman at Lincoln High School. He earned a football scholarship to Indiana State University upon his graduation in 1988.
But things quickly turned sour at ISU. Despite the pleadings of his family and friends, White got married at 19. The marriage soon hit the rocks, he lost his scholarship and dropped out.
White decided to join the military in hopes of finding some stability and direction.
Then came the Gulf War in 1991.
White served with B Company, 3rd Ranger Battalion, in one of the most secret operations of the war.
Small Ranger teams - eight to 10 men each - were dropped deep inside
Iraq. They hid by day and
moved at night, avoiding Iraqi troops when they could and quietly killing them when they couldn't.
The Rangers' job was to "paint" selected targets with special lasers, creating homing beacons for bombs released from aircraft such as the F-117 Stealth fighter.
White said his team's target was an Iraqi chemical weapons site, although
he's not sure whether it
was a manufacturing plant or a storage site. "I was one of the lowest guys on the totem pole," White said. "I was a lower (enlisted man) at the time, and there was no need for me to know anything. I was just doing what I was told."
White now believes he was exposed to chemical agents when the bombs struck. "The chemical detectors, they were going off all over the place," he said.
The Rangers didn't bother putting on their bulky chemical suits and masks - they needed to get out of the area.
Two years later, in May 1993, White was honorably discharged from the Army. He'd been sick for more than a year.
It started on training runs with his battalion, when he found himself lagging behind, desperately short on breath. Doctors called it "exercise-induced asthma."
The attacks grew more frequent, even without exercise. White lost 50 pounds getting in shape for football. Despite being the oldest of the 109 players on McKendree's team, he earned a starting spot at offensive tackle during preseason play.
His lungs disagreed.
"I'd be able to go about five or six plays, and I'd just be exhausted. I could push myself for maybe four or five more plays, but after that it got to the point where I'm in the huddle bent over."
White switched to defensive tackle, then defensive end. Now he fills in for the starters for one or two plays, then takes a seat on the bench. An avid weightlifter, White once bench-pressed 633 pounds at a national meet in 1995 - just two pounds short of the national record. He still lifts regularly, but only for short periods of time.
"Every day that I look in the mirror, I blame myself," White said. "I feel resentment for myself. There's no need to blame the government.
"They didn't tell us the risks, but we knew the risks ourselves because we were going into a combat situation. Anything can happen in combat. The ultimate thing is that you can lose your life. I was fully aware of the risks that were at hand."
What frustrates him the most is not being able to play to his full capability. "I deal with a lot of anger and a lot of depression because I know I can do it," he said. "Not being conceited, I know that if I could go, I'd be an All-American. I can beat just about anyone that lines up in front of me.
"Because of my asthma, I don't have the stamina to continue to go at the level I am capable of going. Now, all I want is to keep going as long as I can."
Originally Published, October 19, 1997, Belleville News Democrat,
(c) 1997, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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