Despite five years of denials and coverups, the truth about the mysterious illnesses plaguing more than 60,000 United States veterans of the Persian Gulf war has begun to emerge. Almost monthly, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the Central Intelligence Agency are forced to concede some compelling new piece of proof in the already overwhelming body of evidence that US forces in Operation Desert Storm were exposed to a mix of potentially deadly toxins, including low levels of chemical nerve agents.
That those exposures took place, and that they are one cause of the debilitating variety of symptoms known as "Gulf war syndrome," can no longer be credibly denied. But the denials continue.
In late June the Pentagon reluctantly acknowledged the presence of chemical weapons in munitions bunkers at Kamisiyah, Iraq, destroyed by US ground troops. This has been known to the Defense Department and the CIA since 1991. This week, the Pentagon increased the estimate of troops exposed at Kamisiyah to 15,000.
Yet government doctors see no connection between the plume of fallout from Kamisiyah and the illnesses of the US Army engineers in its path. Last year, the Defense declassified more than 900 Gulf war intelligence reports, some referring to chemical weapons at Kamisiyah, then withdrew all those documents from public view. Only now, after the full story of Kamisiyah has been told, have some of those documents been returned to the public domain where they belong. In early August, the Defense Department's Persian Gulf Veterans' Illness Investigation Team posted on the Internet, without announcement, a report listing seven other chemical weapons detections the Pentagon concedes "cannot be discounted." Apparently they tried.
Gulf war veterans tell of many more chemical alarms during the early days of the ground war. Still the Pentagon hides behind the carefully worded conclusion that, "To date, no coalition country has made a clinical link between Gulf war veterans' illnesses and their service in the Persian Gulf." The war was a major national priority. Five years out, we should have definitive answers, and the veterans should have treatment. Their health deserves the same commitment as victory on the battlefield.
The pattern of coverup is clear. Despite claiming to have abandoned its blanket denial that chemical weapons play any part in Gulf war veterans' illnesses, the Pentagon's self-proclaimed "open mind" on the subject still closes each new reluctant concession with elaborate disclaimers, limitations, and obfuscations.
Why does the government that sent men and women to war remain so blind to the plight of its warriors? The question haunts sick veterans and their families, worried about their health and the health of offspring conceived in the shadow of official denials and uncertainty. The pattern of belated admission of long-known or knowable facts makes veterans understandably suspicious that the Pentagon and the VA may not want to find answers that undermine US chemical weapons defense doctrine, expose hazardous practices, or lead to billions of dollars in health care and compensation costs. It is our moral obligation to find those answers.
That is why we must continue to press the VA, the Defense Department, and the CIA to face the obvious facts and undertake the research needed to determine the true role of chemical weapons and other toxins in the Gulf war. Some of those answers may bring our chemical weapons defense capability into question, both in terms of equipment and deployment practices. So be it. For the sake of those already sick, as well as those we might yet put in harm's way, a realistic assessment of our protective capabilities against chemical and biological weapons is overdue.
Military analysts had already begun to question both the quality and quantity of US countermeasures before the Gulf war. To sick veterans, it is now a matter of life or death whether the suits, masks, detection equipment, and deployment tactics were adequate against the agents we now know were present on that battlefield. I keep thinking about the Czech Army. It has better protective equipment in some cases, and it detected at least five of the instances of chemical exposure the Pentagon is only now acknowledging publicly, and it started testing its soldiers every year, back in 1991. We are just starting.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon and the VA seem content to study these questions literally to death. The government research agenda into possible Gulf war pathologies stretches into the next century, with meaningful epidemiological studies and research into low-level exposures just beginning. Meanwhile, those who bore the burdens of war are being asked to bear the burden of proof that their mysterious illnesses are causally connected to their Gulf war service.
I don't believe there is one Gulf war syndrome, because there are so many factors involved. But there is a Pentagon syndrome. There is something about this culture that accepts a death in combat, but doesn't treat service-related illness the same way. I don't know if it's fear of liability, or what. I keep thinking someone in the Pentagon is referring to the Agent Orange procedures manual left over from Vietnam: Deny there's a problem, tell the veterans they're imagining it, and then pay up when it's too late to help. And the denials continue.
A recent investigation team report on the possible effects of low-level exposure to chemical nerve agents goes so far as to prejudge the outcome of research the Pentagon boasted would be undertaken after the Kamisiyah disclosures. The report concludes "it would be unlikely in the extreme that such research would enhance our understanding of Gulf war illnesses."
What would enhance our understanding is an end to the denials, an acknowledgment of the obvious facts regarding the presence of chemical weapons in the Gulf, and the same level of commitment to care for Gulf veterans that we asked them to bring to the successful conduct of that war.
*Christopher Shays (R) represents the Fourth District in Connecticut.