They went to the Persian Gulf prepared to give their lives. Now, three years later, they are. And the government is doing its damnedest to suppress why.
By Mary A. Fischer
Photo Editor Tyler Pappas
Vexed veterans, from left to right, Tommy Harper, Larry Kay, Roy Morrow Jr. and Nick Roberts, in Phenix City, Alabama.
In August 1990, Nick Roberts "didn't even know who in the heck Saddam Hussein was." It didn't matter. All Roberts knew was that America was about to go to war with this man and, as a reservist in the 24th Naval Mobile Construction Battalion, based near his home in Phenix City, Alabama, he wanted to defend his country. The American flags on his truck and in the front yard let people know how he felt. He'd seen a couple of his buddies "squirm out of" going to Saudi Arabia, but he could never do that and live with himself. Except for his monthly drills at the naval reserve center in Columbus, Georgia, he'd never had a chance to serve his country. He had graduated from high, school when the Vietnam War was winding down, got married right away and started a family.
So when a lieutenant told him in November 1990 that he wouldn't have to go to the Persian Gulf because of some basic training he'd missed, Roberts, closing in on 40, set him straight: "I'm going, and that's that."
So he went.
Stationed close to a marine airstrip near Jubail, 200 miles south of Kuwait, for six months, Roberts and his construction battalion (Seabee) buddies in the 1624 Columbus detachment worked their tails off. They built roads and bunkers and made runway repairs. Every other night, Nick went on watch in the tower over the airstrip. He heard the bombings and saw missiles explode in the sky. He had anticipated these signs of war. He hadn't, however, anticipated some of the other realities of this war. At one point, his unit heard that the well water had been poisoned with arsenic and cyanide. On other occasions, his comrades related to him that they saw hundreds of dead animals -sheep, goats and dogs- lying along the highways. Curiously, some of the animals had a blue bag over their heads. Roberts and the others would later wonder if these occurrences had any connection to the events that took place in the early morning hours of January 17 and 20, 1991, events that would forever change the Seabees' lives -and the lives of thousands of other servicemen and -women- but which the Pentagon would claim never happened.
Most of all, Nick Roberts and scores of other Desert Storm veterans never would have guessed that their real battle would begin after they returned to the States-and that it would be against their own government.
Now, three years after coming home from the Gulf, Nick can't escape the knowledge that his insistence on having gone there to fight may wind up killing him. He is one of an astonishing number of veterans who've been afflicted by what's being called Gulf War Syndrome. Perfectly healthy when they left for the Mideast, these veterans came home with a baffling array of debilitating symptoms that so far have defied diagnosis. Some are tormented by large blisters and rashes. Others have headaches, diarrhea, bleeding gums and chronic fatigue. Some of the afflicted hobble around on canes because of the pain in their joints and muscles. Others can't get out of bed. Some have been diagnosed as having cancer. Others have died.
The Department of Veterans Affairs puts the number of complaints by Gulf-war vets at 13,700; but one VA doctor says the number of afflicted veterans could be much higher-as high as 150,000. Recently, there's been another curious development in this story: a steadily growing number of spouses and newborns are sick, suggesting to some physicians and politicians that the veterans were exposed to something biological -germs- that they transmitted to their family upon their return.
The story might never have come out at all had it not been for the persistence of a handful of sick veterans who spoke out publicly. Nick Roberts was one of the first. Initially, he doesn't fit the profile of someone who could effectively tackle the federal government. He speaks softly, politely, and has a relaxed, down-home demeanor. "Don't be fooled," his wife, Pixie, cautions. "He's an SOB when someone gets in his way."
Nick and Pixie Roberts are self-acknowledged "country folks." They live with their three daughters in a small town near the Alabama-Georgia border. Atlanta looms two hours away by car, yet they have been there only three times. They find the city overwhelming.
Roberts and his Seabee friends are a long way from Washington, D.C., but with the help of several members of Congress who've taken up their cause, they are waging a successful war against the Pentagon's denials of their claims and the VA's slow, bureaucratic ways. Their efforts have resurrected the specter of two of the country's biggest political scandals of the past two decades: Iraqgate and Agent Orange.
"You'd think that after Agent Orange [the scandal involving the military's use of dioxin (known as Agent Orange), the defoliant U.S. military pilots sprayed over the dense Southeast Asian jungles], after the secret radiation experiments and the secret mustard-gas experiments on World War II soldiers," Representative Glen Browder (D-Alabama) tells me, "you'd think that someone in the government would try to be ahead of the curve. But so far we haven't seen anyone doing that."
The information gathered for this article suggests that some of the government's reticence may have to do with politics and with serious miscalculations before and during the war. The story of what happened to Nick Roberts and other sick Gulfwar veterans goes beyond politics, though, and underscores a larger theme. It tells the story of those thousands of American men and women who went over to the Gulf as patriots and came back disillusioned with their own government. Where once they felt proud, they now feel betrayed and abandoned -as expendable, they say, as wasted shells.
Two loud explosions on the morning of January 20, 1991, jolted Nick Roberts and his comrades out of their bunks near the airstrip. Bright flashes lit up the sky. Alarms went off all over the base. The radioman, Petty Officer Tommy Harper, decoded the message coming in: "Confirmed gas attack. Go to full Mopp-4." Panic set in as the troops were ordered into full chemical gear.
They weren't alone. According to reports made during and after the war, thousands of troops stationed in the desert surrounding Jubail felt the explosions and were ordered to don full chemical gear. Seconds after the explosions, many began to feel the way Nick Roberts did: His skin began to burn, and his lips went numb. He had a strange taste in his mouth, like a copper penny, and his nose ran uncontrollably. Petty Officer Roy Morrow Jr. had to take off his gas mask to clear the muck running from his eyes. After two hours, the all-clear signal sounded. During the day, the men compared notes and concluded what seemed obvious -there'd been a chemical attack. Harold Edwards, a decontamination officer who checked the area, told them later he'd detected mustard gas and lewisite, a blistering agent.
The following day, Lieutenant Buddy Harrison, the unit's commanding officer, ordered the men not to talk about "what they could only speculate about." They were told the explosions had been sonic booms, but they didn't buy it. Sonic booms didn't cause fireballs in the sky. Nor did they make your eyes and skin burn. And what about the radio report? That was hard to discount. So were all the dead animals strewed across the desert. The blue bags, the men discovered, were the NATO sign for chemical or biological contamination.
Nick Roberts and his wife, Pixie, who also suffers from ailments possibly attributable to germ warfare.
Still, the word came down: The men were to stop talking about the attack at once. In a later interview with me, Harrison said "We weren't trying to hide anything. We were trying to restore order and told the men they'd be given information as it came down." But, he acknowledges, there was never any follow-up.
Three days after the explosions, many in the unit became "sick as dogs," Nick says, with what felt like the flu. Some developed terrible rashes. They joked that it must be "Spamitis" from all the canned luncheon meat they were eating. The lymph glands in Nick's groin became swollen. He reported to sick bay every few days. Each time, the medic made a record of his complaints, gave him Motrin and told him what all the military doctors would tell him over the next two years -he was just stressed out.
Maybe the medic was right, Nick thought. Maybe he was just worn out. Maybe this was what people meant when they said war is hell. But the excitement of going home soon overshadowed his terrible fatigue.
Having seen death in the war, Nick returned home, in May 1991, with a new set of priorities. He had been accustomed to working seventy hours a week in his vinyl-siding business, but he vowed to work less and spend more time with his family. He went shopping and square dancing, but Pixie noticed his energy always quickly gave out. And he couldn't seem to shake an achy, feverish feeling.
Then, one day in August, three months after Nick returned from the Gulf, Pixie found him crawling across their bedroom floor. He was too weak to stand up. It was around this time that Pixie got sick: “I had such pain in my hands, knees and ankles, I couldn't even open a jar of mayonnaise or drive the kids to school." Her acute symptoms abated after six weeks, but her fatigue persisted.
Nick's friends from the 1624 Columbus detachment weren't faring well either. They lived near one another and had stayed in touch. Tommy Harper, the radioman, had an enlarged spleen. Mike Moore had thyroid problems and kept passing out. Bobby Rich came back with terrible stomach problems. And Roy Morrow and Larry Kay shared some of Nick's symptoms -swollen lymph glands and body rashes.
Each time they got together, they came up with the same conclusion: They'd been exposed to chemical and biological weapons. With so many of them sick, nothing else made sense.
The allied response to the August 2, 1990, invasion of Kuwait marked the beginning of the biggest military buildup since World War II, with a total Allied force of 657,000 troops. The conflict lasted only forty-two days and resulted in the fewest Americans killed in action of any of the nation's wars -148. That number accounts for the men and women who died from conventional weaponry -bombs, bullets and exploding shrapnel. But only something unconventional, it seems, would explain the high rate of undiagnosable illnesses afflicting Gulf-war veterans.
Several theories have emerged to explain the phenomenon. One type of American weapon used in the operation may have harmed U.S. troops. According to news reports, top Pentagon officials, believing the risk to be negligible or nonexistent, failed to warn army officers about depleted uranium, a heavy metal used in artillery tips that releases a radioactive dust when it explodes.
Another theory for the syndrome blames "multiple chemical sensitivity." Operation Desert Storm was an environmentally dirty war. Allied troops were exposed to pesticides, petrochemicals, industrial pollutants and toxic fumes from the oil fires the Iraqis set as they retreated from Kuwait. The combination, medical researchers say, may have overtaxed the veterans' immune systems.
But for the most part, according to Senator Donald Riegle, a Democrat from Michigan, these theories have been discounted by various congressional investigators. That leaves chemical-biological warfare as the most compelling and logical explanation. However, the Department of Defense's standing on this has never wavered. "Our position has always been the same," says department spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Doug Hart. "We do not feel Iraq used any chemical or biological weapons during the Gulf war." He is not as certain, though, about the "presence" of such warfare agents and says "We are still investigating that." But given Iraq's history and the dramatic evidence that has come out since the war, the DOD's position may be based more on a wish than on reality.
In the early Eighties, U.S. officials learned that Iraq was hard at work developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. It was common knowledge that Hussein had killed thousands of Iranians with mustard gas during the long Iran-Iraq war, thereby violating the Geneva Protocols of 1925 and the Biological Warfare Convention of 1972. Hussein again used nerve gas in 1988, this time killing thousands of his own people, the rebel Kurds.
And then, on the morning of January 17, 1991, the first day of the Gulf war, the official government newspaper in Baghdad announced that Iraq would unleash a secret weapon that would "astonish our enemies and fascinate our friends" and release "an unusual force." And while some U.S. experts speculated that the "unusual force" reference was to some sort of radiation device, intelligence reports suggested it meant a "cocktail" of nerve agents (including sarin and tabun), biotoxins and blister agents, such as lewisite, which cause irritation to the eyes and skin. In Kurdistan, Iraq had used mixed-agent weapons of mustard gas, tabun and cyanogen chloride, a toxic gas capable of penetrating gas-mask filters. In April 1990, four months before Iraq invaded Kuwait, Hussein claimed Iraq had had "double combined chemical" weapons since the last year of the Iran-Iraq war, according to a Senate report by Riegle on Gulf War Syndrome. (Mixed agents, some medical researchers claim, could explain the wide variety of American veterans' symptoms.)
It was obvious that Hussein had the means to carry out his threats. By the start of the Gulf war, Iraq's chemical and biological arsenal was huge. Riegle's Senate report also states that the CIA estimated that, at that time, Iraq possessed 1,000 tons of poisonous chemical agents, much of them already loaded into shells, rockets and missiles, particularly the FROG (free rocket over ground) and Scud B. At one Iraqi military complex alone, 1,000 tons of the nerve agent sarin were produced each month.
During the first ten days of the air war, according to CNN reports, Iraqi forces launched five Scud missiles each day. On the morning of January 17, according to Associated Press reports, U.S. Air Force commanders confirmed that the Iraqi forces had fired FROG missiles across the border into Saudi Arabia in the general area of American troops. One Alabama National Guard unit-the 644th Ordnance Company-was particularly exposed. After the war, 85 out of 110 members of the unit would became severely sick.
Then, on the morning of January 20, Hussein announced over the radio that his nation would be fighting back with "all the means and potential God has given us." CNN went on to report extensively on the Iraqi Scud missiles that were streaking toward key Allied military sites. Up to five FROG missiles were launched into the area south of the Kuwaiti border that day, in the desert near where Nick Roberts and his Columbus unit were detached. A marine later claimed there had been as many as five "gas attack" alerts that day. It was after that January morning that the Seabees' health went downhill.
None of this would seem to have caused surprise to the U.S. military's top-ranking officers. "We fully expected Iraq to use chemical weapons," Brigadier General Richard Neal, General Norman Schwarzkopf's deputy officer of operations, said shortly alter the war. Allied leaders threatened severe retaliation -nuclear force was implied- if Iraq did. "Our defenses were much better than his," says John Carrico, a SRI International chemical-biological weapons expert who works closely with the DOD. "We made it clear that 'If you don't like what we're doing in our carpet bombing, guess what will happen if you even think about chemical or biological."
Something else happened in the first few days of the war that bolstered the vets' belief they'd been exposed to something unconventional. According to an investigation by Senator Riegle, U.S. bombers destroyed eighteen chemical, twelve biological and four nuclear facilities within Iraq. The massive explosions released into the air thousands of pounds of toxic substances, which, Riegle says, were carried downwind to American troops. The Pentagon doesn't accept this explanation, but SRI expert Carrico admits, "It certainly is a possibility. We were very much concerned about that -how to do bombing in a way that minimized collateral damage."
Even after the installation bombings, which wiped out many of Hussein's weapons facilities, U.N. inspections conducted after the war discovered a chemical and biological readiness that was staggering: 13,000 155-mm. artillery shells loaded with mustard gas; 6,200 rockets packed with nerve agents; 28 Scud warheads loaded with sarin; and 800 nerve-agent aerial bombs. In addition, the Muthanna facility outside Baghdad still contained a vast, deadly chemical inventory: 75 tons of sarin, 60 to 70 tons of tabun, 250 tons of mustard gas and stocks of thiodiglycol, a precursor used in mustard gas.
Back in Georgia and Alabama, in August 1991, men from the 24th Naval Battalion began asking the government for help, and it is then that their troubles and frustration took root, "Trying to get help from the Department of Defense and the VA has been ten times more difficult than fighting that war," said reservist Sterling Sims of the 1624 Columbus unit. "It's a joke." They weren't looking for a handout, they told medics at the naval reserve centers they visited. They just wanted to know what was wrong with them -and they wanted their health back.
Naval doctors made notes, took photographs of their rashes and sent the men to Fort Benning, in Georgia, for blood tests. No one could pinpoint the problem, Nick says, "so they kept feeding us this line of bull that nothing was wrong with us." Meanwhile, their symptoms worsened. The men heard about other vets from the battalion who were so sick they could no longer work. Some of them had even lost their homes, their life's savings-and their lives.
By November 1992, more than a year after returning home, Nick and his friends still hadn't received medical treatment. "We raised so much Cain," he says now, that a medical team came from Bethesda Naval Medical Center and tested the men all over again. Their diagnosis: posttraumatic stress disorder. "They said it was all in our heads. They told me I needed psychiatric help," says Nick.
Unable to handle the situation, the visiting navy doctors referred the men to the VA, and the testing process -and their frustration- started all over again. Over the next four months, Roberts and the other vets made repeated visits to the VA Medical Center in Tuskegee, Alabama. They put in disability claims, saying their illnesses were war-related, but the VA went by the book and denied their claims. Since there was no numerical code for their ailments listed in the diagnostic book, the VA couldn't treat them even if it had known how. And when it came to compensation, the department adopted the same stance toward these vets as it had taken with Vietnam veterans in the late Seventies: no proof, no compensation. (Eventually, 10,000 Vietnam veterans won a class-action suit against a number of chemical companies-Dow Chemical and Monsanto chief among them-that had produced Agent Orange; the veterans received a total of $ 180 million.)
Surely, Nick thought, their medical files, with all the notes that medics had made in the Gulf and in the months following their return, would establish the paper trail they needed to prove that their illnesses began during the war. He retrieved his file from the naval reserve center nearest his home only to discover that many pages, including the first reports from Saudi Arabia, were missing. Three months later, according to Roberts and others in the 1624 unit, Naval Commander Jerry Corbett, feeling sympathetic toward the men, confided that their records "had been purged." Corbett declined to be interviewed, but in March he confirmed the disappearance of the pages to Representative Mac Collins (R-Georgia), who is leading an investigation to determine who in the navy is reponsible for removing the pages.
In the first six months of testing, doctors at Tuskegee followed the protocol every other VA hospital in the country was following. They administered the same batch of lab tests -which cost $10 per vet- that they'd used in testing Vietnam veterans for Agent Orange.
One doctor at Tuskegee, Charles Jackson, knew that using the standard tests was wrong. Jackson, an environmental physician, had worked in another VA hospital during the Agent Orange crisis and "hadn't seen the severity of symptoms and dramatic numbers of sick veterans" that he was seeing now, he says. The range of symptoms led him to believe that the vets had been exposed to chemical -and possibly biological- weapons. The Pentagon, he knew, denied this, but Jackson found that hard to accept. "The whole theater was contaminated," he says.
Jackson wasn't alone in his hunches. Since August 1992, Edward Hyman, an outspoken New Orleans doctor, had been successfully treating several sick veterans, including Sterling Sims, who couldn't get help from the VA. Hyman added more weight to the germ-warfare theory when he found deep-seated bacterial infections in many of the veterans -and in some of their wives. The antibiotics he prescribed relieved most of their symptoms.
At first, researchers from the VA and the Pentagon discredited Hyman's methods and basically "slandered my good name," he says. But as the months passed and Hyman's methods still seemed to be working, government officials changed their tune and began seriously considering the $1 million research proposal he'd submitted.
Although Hyman could call his own shots, Jackson's options were limited by the VA's bureaucratic rules. Because of the Pentagon's unwillingness to acknowledge even the presence of chemical and biological agents in the Persian Gulf, let alone an actual attack, "the (VA) people in Washington felt additional tests weren't warranted," Jackson recalls.
But he kept thinking about Roy Morrow and the others. It bothered him that these men couldn't get benefits when some "couldn't even function." He says he believed "clearly these people are suffering from problems that occurred in the line of duty." Jackson could live with the "multiple-chemical sensitivity" line -the environmental-pollutant theory that was free of politics- but that alone didn't explain why some of these veterans' wives and children were getting sick. Problem was, the VA didn't accept either explanation as a ratable disease in its code book. Jackson knew then what he was up against: "We were talking about changing a whole system."
On their own time, Jackson and his team began trying to isolate a cause. He administered a whole new series of tests, which jumped to a cost of $ 150 per vet. He became convinced the vets were suffering from immune suppression by chemical and/or biological agents. On October 27, 1993, he made his move. Breaking with the bureaucrats in Washington, he diagnosed Larry Kay, Nick's reservist friend, with "Persian Gulf Syndrome and chemical-biological warfare exposure." Finally, an elated Kay said, "somebody at the federal level told the truth."
Within an hour of receiving Jackson's diagnosis, Larry Kay rushed to Nick's house, ecstatic about the official VA memo he held in his hand. Nick turned around and faxed the memo to forty-three people -including members of Congress, reporters and other vets. By the time Larry got back home, Nick had already arranged for him to be on the local news.
The following day, VA Secretary Jesse Brown refuted Jackson's diagnosis, telling reporters through a spokesman that Kay had been "tested, not diagnosed, as exposed" and that "no conclusive medical evidence has been identified yet." Jackson says he "laid low" for a while but kept testing sick vets on his own time.
Two months prior to Jackson's coming out with his controversial diagnosis, Nick Roberts went to see a private doctor in Columbus, Georgia, paying the bills out of his own pocket. Nick and the doctor tried to get his records from the VA, but they were never sent out. Unable to determine which tests Nick had already undergone, the doctor was forced to start all over again.
As the weeks passed, Nick grew weaker. Finally, a biopsy revealed the grim news: He had cancer -advanced non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. In another six to eight weeks, the doctor told him, the tumor would have shut down his kidneys and thrown him into a coma -or killed him. The close call made it clear to Roberts that "had I relied on the VA, I'd be dead now."
He began chemotherapy. The knowledge that he had cancer and the side effects of the chemotherapy sent him into a deep depression. He "moped around the house," Pixie recalls. "It was like 'Poor, poor pitiful me.' "She couldn't stand it anymore. "Don't sit there and feel sorry for yourself," she yelled. "Get up off your rump and do something!" Normally, "you never raise your voice at Nick Roberts," Pixie says. "But we were losing him, and I couldn't stand by and watch that happen."
A second catalyst was the letter Nick received from his naval reserve center shortly after he left the reserves, in March 1993. Thinking it would carry a message of sympathy, he opened it only to discover an order. He must return his government-issued uniform and his helmet to the center as soon as possible. "That really ticked me off," he says. "I had given my all to the navy, and they gave me a slap in the face."
Finally, something Nick was told at the reserve center spurred him into high gear. When he returned his uniform, a medic casually mentioned that six other men from Nick's battalion also had cancer. "I said 'Whoa! What was that?"' At that moment, everything clicked into place. "There was no doubt in my mind that what we'd been exposed to in Saudi explained what we were going through now," he says. Still, he'd have to prove it.
He began "raising hell," pushing his disability claim through the VA and collecting information from ailing vets all over the country. Of the 2,896 vets he eventually talked to, 184 had been diagnosed as having cancer after they returned from the Gulf. Rebuffed by the military and the VA, Nick began leaning on members of Congress, such as Riegle and Browder, who, along with Senator Richard Shelby (D-Alabama) and Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Massachusetts), began to emphasize the issue in Washington. Having established communication, Nick continuously fed them information he collected from the national network of veterans he was developing.
He started at the top. He wrote letters to VA Secretary Brown, trying to get service-connected. He bought more file cabinets and a fax machine. He talked to local reporters. He sent out packet after packet of information. His old copier broke down from the load, so he bought a new one. His monthly phone and postage bills ran to $700.
In time, he made valuable contacts inside the federal government with people who were sympathetic to his search for the truth. One ally sent him the VA's diagnostic code book on the sly. Another forwarded an official government manual that details chemical and biological agents and their corresponding symptoms after exposure, so Nick could make comparisons with the symptoms he was hearing about.
Within a matter of weeks, Nick had turned his small vinyl-siding office into a bona fide command center, and his workaholic ways had returned. Pixie and the girls hardly saw him. At times, the chemotherapy made him so weak that he had to lie on the floor to work, but he persevered.
In June 1993, The Birmingham News broke the story on the veterans' possible chemical exposure. Later that month, two vets -Willie Hicks (of the 644th Ordnance Company) and Sterling Sims- went to Washington for a hearing organized by Senator Shelby. They stunned a room full of politicos as they related details of the two separate January 1991 incidents that they believed were chemical -or biological- warfare attacks. Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee winced as Sims pulled up his shirtsleeves and showed the festering sores all over his arms.
Nick Roberts and Jenny, one of his three daughters.
New developments followed. In the months after the first Washington hearing, unable to get straight answers from the Pentagon, Shelby and Browder traveled to the Middle East and Europe, looking for evidence. In August, Browder found some. In the early phases of the Gulf war, a Czech chemical-decontamination unit had detected low levels of sarin in northern Saudi Arabia that it traced to fallout from Allied bombings of Iraqi chemical-weapons production facilities. (Sarin is known for its cumulative effects, which Jackson, among others, feels might explain the progressive symptoms of some of the vets.)
The most significant revelation, though, was that Czech authorities had given these detection reports to U.S. officials during the war. "That means the Pentagon had these reports in their files all along," an incredulous Shelby tells me. "I wish they would be forthcoming, but they haven't been. It's like pulling teeth to extract anything." DOD spokesman Hart acknowledges that the department knew of these reports, but he discounts them. "When we did follow up with more sophisticated equipment afterward, we were never able to determine that there were, in fact, chemicals in the area." Shelby also uncovered two French detections, one of which corroborated the Czech detection.
Then came the U.N. reports, which disclosed three more detections of chemical nerve agents. Meanwhile, Nick Roberts had come up with more evidence on his own. After reading a newspaper article about Nick in which a DOD official was quoted as saying there were "no chemical detections in the war," one veteran got Roberts's number from the phone book and called. "I have something I think you need to see," he said.
That veteran, Bob Wages -a commander during the war of a $2 million army Fuchs vehicle used for chemical and biological detections- had found traces of mustard gas on a serviceman's flight jacket. Wages had videotaped the detection and kept a copy of the tape. Wages told Nick something else that was even more damning. Another Fuchs operator had actually received a Bronze Star for being "credited with the first confirmed detection of chemical agent contamination in the theater of operations."
Ironically, that commander, who is still on active duty and hoping to deflect attention from himself, has now disassociated himself from the honor. Before Representative Browder went public with the commander's Bronze Star certificate last October, he agreed to black out the officer's name on the document. Although the Pentagon admits giving the award, DOD spokesman Hart discounts its significance: "When we sent his clothes for checking, we were unable to confirm that any agents were on them."
As with Larry Kay's diagnostic memo, Nick knew Wages's information was of no use unless he went public with it. The following day, he put Wages in touch with members of Congress and TV producers, and news of the tape and the Bronze Star award soon broke on NBC's NOW program.
After reports of the various detections came out, and the DOD still hadn't changed its position, some members of Congress felt as Joseph Kennedy did: that the DOD's denials "verge on a cover-up."
You might think that the two most prominent heroes of the Gulf war, General Norman Schwarzkopf and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, would be willing to address the issue of possible chemical and biological warfare by Iraq. They might also want to say something about their ailing troops and the VA. I called on both of them, explained the nature of my questions and was told that neither would be available to comment.
The veterans' troubles have deeper roots than might be guessed. To understand the politics of Gulf War Syndrome, one must also understand the complicated government scandal that came to be dubbed Iraqgate. At the heart of that affair lies this fact: U.S. government officials in the Reagan and Bush administrations not only knew of Hussein's vast nuclear, chemical and biological arsenal but also secretly and illegally supplied him with much of it. Considering the startling implications -that U.S government policy possibly contributed to the deaths or severe illnesses of thousands of American troops-it's not surprising that the Pentagon has been loath to acknowledge the veterans' maladies.
The Reagan administration began the covert relationship with Hussein during the decade-long Iran-Iraq war, hoping to prevent an Iranian victory, which would mean the unthinkable -the spread of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Middle East. During the Eighties, the U.S. government and such American business giants as Hewlett-Packard, Bechtel Corp., Bell Helicopter and Dow Chemical, among others, developed an association with Iraq. The problem wasn't with U.S. companies -which acted within the law- but with the government's reckless approval of export licenses for sensitive "dual-use" equipment that wound up bolstering Hussein's military arsenal. Officials in the departments of State, Commerce and Defense approved and encouraged much of the financing, intelligence-sharing and technology exports that helped build Iraq into the formidable nuclear, chemical and biological threat it was by the start of the Gulf war.
In the Eighties, under Reagan and Bush, this dual-use policy allowed the shipment to Iraq of U.S. military equipment -including ammunition, spare parts, military trucks, defense electronics and computers. Without the knowledge of Congress but with the approval of top officials in the Reagan and Bush administrations, the Commerce Department went on to grant export licenses for shipments of rocket cases, nuclear triggers and specialized technology ultimately used in Hussein's cluster bombs and in his "super gun" and Condor II nuclear-missile projects. Informing Congress would have revealed the government's close ties with Iraq, which, given its leader's history of terrorism and human-rights abuses, would surely have been condemned by the media and the public.
Incredibly, even in early 1990, when U.S. relations with Hussein began to sour and growing evidence suggested he was becoming a serious military threat, State Department officials did not make changes in the export policy-not until one week before Iraq invaded Kuwait.
A classified document sent to Secretary of State James Baker on July 19,1990 -less than two weeks before Hussein launched the invasion- acknowledged that "Iraq is actively engaged in developing chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missile systems and may be seeking to develop nuclear weapons as well. Iraq has been attempting to obtain items to support these proliferation activities from U.S. exporters- in some cases successfully."
Another provocative document, sent on July 25, 1990, just eight days before the invasion, and obtained by this magazine, establishes the sense of alarm within the State Department. "I have just had a memorandum forwarded to your executive secretary," Secretary Baker wrote to Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, "requesting that additional controls be placed on items that could contribute to Iraq's chemical and biological weapons and missile programs. Iraq's extraordinarily aggressive weapons proliferation efforts make this situation urgent. I therefore ask that these controls be instituted as quickly as possible."
Even during Operation Desert Storm, on February 21, 1991, House Banking Committee Chairman Henry Gonzalez, who had initiated the congressional investigation into Iraqgate, predicted the serious implications of the administration's policy. "Our boys" could face death or serious bodily harm in the Persian Gulf, Gonzalez said, as a result of missile components and chemicals that had been produced by U.S. businesses and shipped out with government export licenses. Gonzalez realized he was dealing with a government cover-up when he found out that some of the export licenses dug up during his investigation had been altered to remove telling references to the dual-use or military nature of some of the materials shipped.
On February 28, hours after Bush called a cease-fire in the Gulf, the story of Iraqgate broke. Hoping to put out the fires of the scandal, Attorney General Richard Thornburgh indicted eight individuals-including obscure Atlanta bank manager Christopher Drogoul [Ed. note: See "The Fall Guy," May 1993 GQ)-who were involved in making loans to Iraq. No one in the Bush administration was charged, even though high government officials had approved the covert policy. After many of the charges against these individuals were dropped or resolved through plea bargains, the controversy appeared to die out.
But the Gulf-war veterans' story revives it and the full scope of Iraqgate now becomes clear. "Dozens of United States firms participated in Petrochemical Complex II [one of two chemical plants located fifty miles south of Baghdad]," Senate testimony begins, "which provided Iraq with the capability to produce ethylene oxide, a major ingredient in explosive bombs as well as being a precursor for certain chemical weapons."
According to congressional findings, ABB Lummus Crest, a New Jersey company, and Bechtel U.K. were among the prime contractors on PC II. Another U.S. business, Posi Seal Inc., of Connecticut, manufactured and shipped a Commerce Department-approved device used to fill Iraq's chemical-warfare projectiles.
Much of Iraq's chemical-warfare arsenal came from Alcolac, a company in Baltimore. In the late Eighties, according to a U.S. customs investigation, Alcolac illegally exported 630 tons of thiodiglycol, a mustard-gas precursor. Company executives doctored export papers, diverting drums filled with the chemical through Singapore and Holland to their final destinations in Iran and Iraq. The shipments earned $1.5 million for Alcolac.
Eventually, the U.S. Customs Service's sting operation led to the arrests of seven ring members, two of whom are fugitives and remain at large in Europe. Alcolac pleaded guilty to violating U.S. export laws and was fined $437,594. Leslie Hinkleman, Alcolac's export manager, was convicted of falsifying documents and given an eighteen-month suspended sentence. Alcolac has since been absorbed by Rhone-Poulenc, the French chemical giant.
Even more astounding are the revelations coming out about the U.S.'s role in supplying Iraq with biological-warfare agents, which may also explain the DOD's denials. In February, Senator Riegle's office corroborated what the vets and Drs. Charles Jackson and Edward Hyman were saying. Records show that from 1985 to 1989, the U.S. government issued seventeen export licenses for potentially lethal biological agents that were sent to Iraq. The American Type Culture Collection, a nonprofit organization in Rockville, Maryland, and the federal government's own Centers for Disease Control, in Atlanta, were responsible for most of the shipments, according to Riegle's investigation.
The Commerce Department approved export licenses for the biological agents (without the knowledge of the DOD), at a time when Hussein was known to have a biological-warfare program in the works. While the Iraqis stipulated medical research as the intended use for the specimens, in reality, after the war, U.N. inspectors found that some strains-including those for anthrax, botulism, gangrene and tetanus-had been diverted into Hussein's biological warfare program.
Tim Trevan, a U.N. Special Commission spokesman, confirmed to me that "we are satisfied where the seed stock came from." Stopping short of actually linking the specimens found in Iraqi facilities after the war with the two main U.S. suppliers, he commented "You can draw your own inferences."
The implications "are worse than embarrassing," Riegle tells me. "Anyone with half a brain would have understood why Iraq was asking for these things. And now we're paying the price. We're being haunted by the very items we helped provide."
The DOD's long history of denials in this story may, some congressional sources believe, have to do with the department's own admissions about its "inadequate ability to counter a BW [biological weapons] attack." This candid phrase is from the DOD's own April 1992 report to Congress on the conduct of the Persian Gulf War, which goes on to reveal: "In the beginning of the deployment, the Services were not adequately prepared to deal with the full range of CW/BW. There were limitations in most areas, including drug availability, protection, detection, decontamination, prophylaxis, and therapy."
More ammunition supporting vets' claims came out last month in Riegle's second Gulf War Syndrome report. Harold Edwards, the decontamination officer in Nick Roberts's 1624 unit, came forward and confirmed to Riegle that there had been chemical "events" on the morning of January 20, 1991, after which Roberts and other servicemen and -women began to get sick. In addition, a Senate Banking Committee aide to Riegle recently tracked down other striking evidence-actual weather maps from the Gulf region that, he says, "the Pentagon won't be able to discount. We can now scientifically prove that the weather patterns moved the debris from the chemical-biological facilities in Iraq down over our troops."
Mounting evidence coming out of congressional investigations combined with pressure from veterans has caused some governmental action. Last December, the VA started a Persian Gulf registry, whereby sick veterans can receive free lab tests and "expedited care." Still unsure of an exact diagnosis, the VA is calling the problem one of "environmental exposure." Numerous research projects are underway to determine a cause -including a $1 million pilot program at the Birmingham VA Medical Center. And in January, the DOD, the VA and the Department of Health and Human Services created a joint task force to explore the problem.
Still, even with all the evidence that would seem to suggest otherwise, the DOD doesn't acknowledge that the veterans' illnesses are war-related, and the department continues to maintain that "there is no evidence of chemical or biological exposure."
And so, while debate over the possible causes continues in Washington and doctors search for effective treatments, many vets are wasting away or going broke, most of them unable to get the VA to approve their service-connection disability claims.
Nick's cancer is in remission, but he is not well. He has bouts of nausea, memory loss and dizzy spells. "I just can't think about the possibility of him being gone, so I don't," says Pixie, who continues to suffer from fatigue and occasional joint pain. As for her husband, he can still be found most hours out back in his makeshift command center, talking to vets and reporters, faxing material and sending out more information packets.
He scored a major coup a few months ago, when his pressure on VA Secretary Brown finally paid off. The department approved Nick's service-connection claim, reimbursed his private medical bills and began sending monthly disability checks. Despite the victory, Nick is angrier than ever at the VA. Last November, in the week before he was to testify in Washington at a congressional hearing, his VA medical records finally arrived in the mail. The last page, he says, was "the real shocker." It listed the results from all his tests, and "there in black and white" were some of the symptoms that correspond to his type of cancer.
"The sons of bitches knew I had the symptoms for lymphoma and didn't even say anything or do any follow-up," he says. Although the error seems due to oversight rather than to anything sinister, and VA spokesman Terry Jameson says the department is "looking into the situation," Nick has hired a lawyer and plans to sue the VA for "negligence and cover-up." Whatever the reason, Pixie can't get over the idea that "the VA was going to let him die."
But, like other vets, Nick says he isn't in this struggle for the money. He wants the government to come out with the truth and admit what we've been saying all along." His Seabee buddy Tommy Harper is more graphic: "I want Congress to bring the DOD to its knees."
Whatever the explanation turns out to be, and whether it involves a lack of preparedness for chemical and biological warfare, a seriously flawed U.S. government export policy or unpredictable weather patterns, the real issue, as in the Agent Orange scandal, will come down to responsibility. "They can't stonewall this forever," says Senator Shelby. "When a veteran goes to war healthy and he comes back unhealthy, our country has an obligation to take care of that veteran."
With more veterans' wives and newborns showing symptoms -including serious deformities in some babies- the government could be facing a bureaucratic and financial nightmare. Yet, given the sentiments of one Gulf veteran who seems to speak for many, the biggest loss to the U.S. government will likely be measured not in dollars but in something less tangible. "I was born and raised in the service," says Mike Moore. "I'd have given anything for this country. But now I wouldn't give them a dime." The cost, it seems, will be something far more valuable -the loss of thousands of patriots.
Mary A. Fischer is an investigative reporter and GQ writer-at-large. She lives in Los Angeles.