"For Some, a Day of Betrayal," ran a headline in Denver's Rocky Mountain News the day before Veterans Day. A Persian Gulf vet said to be suffering the effects of the mysterious Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) was profiled, and the story by reporter Dick Foster contained a startling figure: "Cancers have developed in Gulf veterans at three to six times the rate among the general population." That news must have shot around Colorado faster than a Scud missile. Many vets probably spent their Veterans Day searching for lumps, bumps, sores, or anything else that might be a sign of cancer.
Three days later, a study appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine. Using the latest data available, it reported the cancer rate of Persian Gulf vets was slightly below that of comparable vets who didn't deploy to the Gulf, and far lower than that of the comparable civilian population.
Welcome to the world of Gulf Lore Syndrome. It is a world in which science is replaced by rumor, in which vets are presented as medical experts while real medical experts are ignored. It is a dimension in which authoritative review studies by eminent scientists are scorned and disdainfully labeled "Pentagon studies" because they reach the "wrong" conclusions--even if done by civilian organizations. Yet incredible accounts of such symptoms as skin-blistering semen and glowing vomit are taken as gospel. It is a "reality" constructed by crusading reporters, activists, demagogic congressmen, and, sadly, by Persian Gulf vets who have become convinced they are the victims of a conspiracy deeper and broader than anything on The X-Files. The sick vets live in this world of Gulf Lore Syndrome. Until reality is allowed to reach them, they will remain trapped in it.
I have been writing on GWS since 1993, and to the best of my knowledge I was the first writer to say that there is no Gulf War Syndrome in the accepted sense of the term. Since then, studies by some of the most prestigious scientists in the country have backed up that position. The early studies included two by the Department of Defense, one by the National Institutes of Health, and a preliminary report by the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. All said that the term Gulf War Syndrome was a misnomer. All said that the various theories of what might be making Persian Gulf vets sick lacked any scientific basis. And every one of these studies' conclusions bounced off the reporters, the activists, and the sick vets like bullets off an M1 tank.
Some things have changed: When I began writing on the topic there were perhaps a hundred news reports about GWS; there are now over 4,000. Back then there were a few thousand Persian Gulf vets who claimed to have the illness; now, depending on who's counting, there are anywhere from 40,000 to more than 100,000. GWS studies continue to appear. The most recent include:
- The final report from the Institute of Medicine, which said in October that there is no "scientific evidence to date demonstrating adverse health consequences linked with [Gulf War] service other than [about 30] documented incidents of leishmaniasis [a parasitical disease caused, in this case, by sand fly bites], combat-related or injury-related mortality or morbidity, and increased risk of psychiatric [problems from] deployment."
- A draft copy of the final report of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses (commonly called the PAC), leaked in November to The New York Times and The Washington Post, which found "no support for the myriad theories proposed as causes of illnesses among Persian Gulf war veterans, or even evidence there is a 'Gulf War Syndrome,'" according to the Post.
- The article in the November 14 New England Journal of Medicine, which found that Persian Gulf vets had the same death rate from disease as non�Persian Gulf vets, and a much lower rate than the comparable civilian population. An accompanying article looked at hospitalizations, finding Persian Gulf vets and non�Persian Gulf vets hospitalized at the same rate.
Will these findings make any difference? Within days of the PAC draft report's release, President Clinton announced a doubling of the budget to investigate GWS. A few weeks later, he announced that the PAC final report would not be a final one after all, that he was going to keep the committee going albeit perhaps dumping some old members and assigning new ones. Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) called two days of highly publicized hearings to denounce the government and parade one sick soldier after another to testify before his congressional panel, each claiming that his symptoms were beyond doubt the result of GWS. Apparently, science is still reaching the wrong conclusion.
Myths Fit to Print
What pulled me back into the fray was the recent series of revelations concerning the demolition of bunkers at Khamisiyah, Iraq. The unit that blew up those bunkers was the 37th Engineer Battalion (Combat) (Airborne). In May, the Pentagon said U.N. inspectors had found that one of those bunkers and a nearby open pit contained Iraqi rockets marked to indicate a nerve gas called sarin. Thus, while the Pentagon could (and did) continue to say that there had been no offensive use of chemical weapons against U.S. troops, it was now clear that American soldiers had been close enough to exploding chemical weapons to be exposed to them. The 37th was my sister unit when I was in the 27th Engineers at Ft. Bragg, a decade earlier. I had lived in the same barracks and worn those same silver wings that mark the Army's proud elite, the paratrooper. I knew these soldiers in ways other reporters did not. What they would tell me in weeks of interviews taught me a great deal about GWS.
I interviewed eight of these men, beginning with former Pfc. Brian Martin. Martin is by far the most prominent 37th Engineer vet, having appeared on 60 Minutes twice, on Nightline, Geraldo, Montel Williams, and Tom Snyder, and having been quoted by news wires, newspapers, and magazines, including the Associated Press, Gannett, The Detroit News, Newsday, Playboy, and one of a series of articles by The New York Times's Philip Shenon. Martin, 33, is also co-president (with his wife) of International Advocacy for Gulf War Syndrome. Being a disabled vet is his life; indeed, his Web page lists his occupation as "disabled veteran," while his e-mail address is "dsveteran."
Martin is quick with a sound bite, such as, "I used to jump out of airplanes and now I can't even jump up and down." Sometimes he walks with a cane; other times he uses a wheelchair. We talked about our old brigade a bit. He explained to me the process of destroying the bunkers at Khamisiyah, and then I asked him to tell me about his symptoms. That was the first hint that something was seriously amiss about Pfc. Martin.
His long list of symptoms included such things as lupus--an autoimmune disease rarely found in men--and "early Alzheimer's." Sensationalist reporters just eat up things like this, but to a medical writer such symptoms were like flapping red flags.
Then the red flag unfurled. Martin told me what he would later tell a congressional panel headed by Shays on September 19, 1996. After returning from the Gulf, he told the panel, "during PT [physical training] I would vomit Chemlite-looking fluids every time I ran; an ambulance would pick me up, putting IVs in both arms, rushing me to Womack Community Hospital. This happened every morning after my return from the war." (Emphasis as noted in the official transcript.)
Chemlites are tubes that, when snapped, glow. In two conversations with me, Martin repeatedly referred to his vomit as being "fluorescent" and said these daily vomits lasted from "March 11 to December 31," 1991. Thus, we are dealing with a man who insists both that his vomit glows and that his NCOs and officers heartlessly insisted that he do physical training for 10 months, knowing that "every morning" he would end up in the hospital with IV tubes in his arms.
If Martin volunteered the vomiting story during both of my interviews with him, it's very likely he told it to every other reporter who interviewed him. Yet they all used Martin as a credible witness, omitting this peculiarity from their accounts.