Gulf War Syndrome:
The Cold Cover-up

Revolutionary Worker #884, Dec. 1, 1996

After the 1991 U.S. war against Iraq, tens of thousands of GIs and reservists who had been sent to the Persian Gulf began experiencing debilitating and sometimes life-threatening medical problems. The symptoms include immune system failure, respiratory problems, severe joint and muscle pain, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, fatigue, loss of memory, sores, intestinal and heart problems. Some Gulf vets have developed cancers. Many babies of Gulf war veterans conceived after the war were born with birth defects. Spouses and children of the Gulf vets have also reported abnormal health problems since the war. Soldiers from other countries who joined in the U.S. war against Iraq have experienced similar illnesses.

The illnesses affecting those who were in the Persian Gulf during the war have come to be known as the Gulf War Syndrome (GWS). As of March 1996, over 80,000 U.S. vets had officially registered with the Veterans Administration as suffering from Gulf war illnesses.

Many questions remain about the cause or causes of the medical problems affecting the Gulf war soldiers. Many sufferers of GWS are certain that their problems are caused by exposures to toxic chemicals and other poisonous substances during the war. U.S.-led forces bombed many chemical, biological and nuclear facilities in Iraq, and debris from the bombings were carried by the wind and spread over a wide area of Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Some vets and others also say that exposure to chemical and biological poisons occurred as a result of Iraqi missile attacks against U.S. and other Coalition forces.

There is clear evidence that top government and military officials knew the troops were exposed to toxic chemicals in the Gulf. But for years, these officials hid the truth. A 1994 letter signed by Defense Secretary William Perry and Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, claimed, "There is no information, classified or unclassified, that indicates that chemical or biological weapons were used in the Persian Gulf."

This cold coverup has had deadly consequences for vets with GWS. The refusal by the government and military to admit that soldiers were exposed to dangerous substances--and to officially recognize GWS as an illness--has made it very difficult for vets to receive the right kind of health care. The most common diagnosis they are being given is "post traumatic syndrome." In other words, they are told that the problems are "in their heads." Many have been given psychoactive drugs, such as Prozac, as "treatment." Some have been told by the Veterans Administration that they would have to pay out of their own pocket for treatments and hospital stays because their conditions are "not service-connected."

But in June of this year the U.S. military establishment was forced to admit, for the first time, that soldiers were exposed to poisonous chemicals when a huge ammunitions depot on Iraqi territory was blown up in March 1991 at the end of the Gulf war. The Pentagon said that 500 soldiers may have been exposed from the explosion near the Iraqi village of Kamisiyah.

Over the next few months, it became clear that this first admission was yet another attempted coverup. The Pentagon quickly had to raise the estimated number of troops affected from the Kamisiyah explosion to 5,000--then to 15,000 and, most recently, to 20,000.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon also admitted for the first time that detection equipment at U.S. military camps in Saudi Arabia may have detected poisons in the air as many as seven times in the first week of the Gulf war.

After five years the Pentagon is finally being forced to come out with a few bits of the truth. And Pentagon officials were compelled to announce a greatly expanded inquiry into whether Gulf war soldiers were exposed to toxic chemicals. But who can trust such an "investigation"? Isn't it like the police department "investigating" brutality by its own officers, or the CIA "investigating" its own connection to the rise of crack cocaine in U.S. cities?

The information that the Pentagon and the U.S. government are owning up to now is only the tip of the iceberg. In reality, the GWS coverup began right on the ground during the Gulf war. It has involved the highest levels of the military and government. The coverup touches not only on the issue of exposure to chemical poisons but also on other questions such as the effect of radioactive ammunition used by the U.S. military, forced administration of unapproved drugs to soldiers and tampering with medical records.

In short, the GWS coverup is deep and vast--and it's still going on.

Poison Clouds

On March 4, 1991, a few days after the end of the Gulf war, a U.S. combat engineering unit blew up a huge Iraqi weapons arsenal near the village of Kamisiyah. The explosions produced a dark cloud that was carried by winds and spread over hundreds of square miles. Many of the soldiers who participated in this mission later developed chronic stomach ailments, mysterious rashes and growths and other GWS symptoms.

Several months after the incident, in November 1991, the Joint Chiefs of Staff circulated a "priority" intelligence report to the White House, the CIA and the State Department stating that chemical weapons, containing the dangerous nerve gas Sarin, had been stored at the blown up Iraqi ammunition depot. (NY Times 8/28/96). But for years, U.S. military and government officials lied through their teeth about the danger posed by the Kamisiyah explosion.

Kamisiyah, however, is only a part of this chilling story. The Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, headed by Senator Donald Riegle, conducted a two-year study on Gulf war illness and U.S. trade policies with Iraq. A February 1994 letter by Riegle to the Secretary of Veteran Affairs pointed out that, according to the committee's inquiry, 18 chemical, 12 biological and 4 nuclear facilities were bombed by the U.S. and its allies during the war. U.S. satellite photos indicated that debris from these bombings were dispersed and rose into the upper atmospheric currents. A UN videotape showed that "the destruction of the ammunition bunkers and storage depots also traveled upwards and outwards." James Tuite, the head investigator of the Riegle inquiry, recently told the Lehrer News Hour that it would be "irresponsible not to conclude" that all Gulf soldiers were exposed to toxic chemicals.

The U.S. government knew even before the war about the potential dangers. The government's own national laboratories at Sandia, Los Alamos and Livermore had warned about chemical fallout from bombing Iraqi facilities. A Russian chemical/biological weapons expert also cautioned that air strikes on Iraqi facilities could "rebound" and cause damage regionally. But the U.S. war planners went ahead anyway with their massive bombing of Iraq.

Vets who were stationed in Saudi Arabia remember that after the air bombing campaign against Iraq began in January 1991, chemical detectors at their camps constantly went off. The alarms were apparently triggered by the clouds of debris from the destruction in Iraq. (Some of the alarms might have been set off by Iraqi SCUD missile attacks.) Highly trained chemical detection teams from Czechoslovakia also repeatedly warned the U.S. forces that their equipment had given off warnings that toxic substances were present.

There is no question that the highest levels of the U.S. military were aware of these alarms--and chose to keep the troops in the dark. One entry in the NBC (nuclear, biological and nuclear incident) logs, prepared by aides to U.S. Commander Gen. Schwarzkopf, reads: "Lt. Col. Merriman called. Report from Army Central Command forward. Czechoslovakian recon report detected GA/GB (mustard gases). And that hazard is flowing down from factory storage bombed in Iraq. Predictably, this has become/is going to become a problem." (Dennis Bernstein, CovertAction Quarterly, No. 53)

U.S. commanders told the troops that the detectors were malfunctioning or that they were being set off by fumes from the jet planes. One member of a Czech chemical team recently recalled: "After about a day, one of the American officers confirmed that, yes, we measured the chemicals, but he said that the Americans didn't want to sound an alarm because there were only low levels of the chemicals and it would cause panic among the soldiers." (NY Times, 10/19/96)

The Pentagon is now admitting the "possibility" that chemical toxins may have set off alarms several times during the Gulf war. But the official Pentagon line is that the amount of any chemicals that may have been detected was very small and would not have caused any serious and long-term health problems.

However, two former CIA analysts, Robin and Patrick Eddington, recently charged that the CIA and the Pentagon are hiding evidence of many more chemical exposures during the Gulf war. Robin Eddington also saw at least one classified document suggesting that even trace exposure to chemical weapons over an extended period could cause illness. The two said they were forced out of the CIA when they insisted on pursuing their investigation into this matter in defiance of their superiors. (NY Times, 10/30/96)

Why has the U.S. government and military deliberately lied about the chemical exposures? One possible reason is that the question of ultimate responsibility leads back to the U.S. itself. The chemical and biological weapons that the Iraqi regime possessed were originally supplied by or developed with the help of U.S. and other Western governments and corporations. When the Iraqi regime used poison gas on the oppressed Kurdish people in the late 1980s, the U.S. government remained silent--because at that time, the U.S. leaders considered that supporting Saddam Hussein was in the interests of their world empire.

Guinea Pigs for
Experimental Drugs

As hundreds of thousands of soldiers were mobilized for the Gulf war at the end of 1990, the government's Food and Drug Administration issued a waiver to the Department of Defense, allowing the military to give experimental and unapproved drugs and vaccines to the troops without first obtaining informed consent. The troops, in effect, were treated as guinea pigs.

According to the National Gulf War Resource Center, "Many soldiers were threatened with court martial if they refused these immunizations, while others were held down and forcibly injected. Vaccines usually were not noted in the immunization records or in the medical record of service members. Some medical staff report that they were given orders not to annotate records and to destroy medical records during and after the war."

Some researchers into the GWS say they have reason to believe that these unapproved drugs and vaccines played a role in causing GWS. For example, the drug pyridostigmine bromide (PB), taken as a small white pill, was given to hundreds of thousands of soldiers. PB is supposed to be for treatment of a serious degenerative nerve disease, and the military claimed it was given as preventative medication for potential nerve gas exposure. However, some studies show that animals given PB became more vulnerable to the nerve agent Sarin--which is one of the gases detected by chemical monitors during the Gulf war. And other studies have indicated that PB combined with exposure to pesticides (which were used in large amounts during the war) might cause brain and nerve damage.

On September 26, 1996, a Pentagon spokesman told the press that "there was a conscious decision made at the time not to tell the troops" that they were being given PB to protect them from effects of chemical weapons. He said this was done because "there was enormous concern at the time of raising any specter, any concern on an intelligence level with the Iraqis, that we were prepared to defend against certain kinds of chemical weapons."

The very next day, the Pentagon spokesman said he was "mistaken" about the statement he made. He said he had confused PB with another pill, designed to protect against biological agents, which was given to a smaller number of troops. The Pentagon claimed it had no intention of deceiving the Gulf troops about PB. But, explained the Pentagon, printed information that had been prepared for the troops "did not arrive before the hostilities were initiated."

The Pentagon's lame attempt at justifying itself only opens up more questions. What was the other pill given to Gulf war troops? What about the studies showing the dangerous effects of PB? Since it is a known fact that the U.S. itself possesses a vast arsenal of chemical/biological weapons, was the U.S. military administering the drugs and vaccines to their forces in case they might use such weapons in the Gulf battlefields?

Radioactive Weapons

During the Gulf war, the Pentagon bragged about the U.S. military's "smart bombs" and other high-tech weaponry. Behind the hype was the ugly truth of what the war did to the people of Iraq: civilian areas hit by bombs, an air raid shelter in Baghdad where hundreds of civilians were killed when U.S. missiles made a direct hit, the destruction of sewage and water plants, electric lines and other vital facilities that devastated people's lives.

Another high-tech weapon used by the U.S. were armor-piercing anti-tank shells made of a radioactive material known as "depleted uranium" (DU). The U.S. military claims that DU weapons pose no radiation danger to the troops handling it. But when DU shells explode, they release highly poisonous dust that can be inhaled or ingested and then trapped in the body--where it can cause lung and bone cancer and kidney disease.

Some U.S. troops were injured by shrapnel from DU shells during "friendly fire" incidents. Many others were also exposed in various degrees. The Nation (10/21/96) writes: "As the U.S.-led coalition forces swept to victory, many celebrating GIs scrambled onto--or into--disabled Iraqi vehicles.... A study by the Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm Association found out that out of 10,051 Gulf war veterans who have reported mysterious illnesses, 82 percent had entered captured enemy vehicles." One vet said, "We didn't know any better. We didn't even find out until long after we were home that there even was such a thing as DU."

What DU has done to U.S. troops is only part of the picture. Hundreds of tons of exploded DU ammunition were left in Iraq and Kuwait, turning the area into a huge toxic waste dump. An August 1995 study submitted by Iraq to the UN reported sharp increases in cancers and various diseases in Iraq's southern region. Iraqi scientists say some of the cancers were caused by DU. Nation points out, "A secret British Atomic Energy Authority report leaked to the London Independent in November 1991 warned that there was enough depleted uranium left behind in the Persian Gulf to account for `500,000 potential deaths' through increased cancer rates."

Tampering with Medical Records

As the RW reported last year (#820, 8/27/95), the military has tried to destroy or alter soldiers' medical records as part of the GWS coverup. A Marine Corps order dated August 1991 indicates that tampering with health records was a matter of policy. "Several sources have suggested that the documentation of exposure to smoke within the geographical boundaries of Kuwait should be placed in members' health records," the order said. "Placing such information could wrongly imply possible health problems in the future, while all the information to date suggests no health hazard exists. Unless there are current health complaints, there is no reason to make health record entries."

The Army Times (April 25, 1994), which covers news of the U.S. armed forces, reported accusations by Navy personnel that the Navy removed files from the medical records of afflicted sailors in November 1991. The sailors say these records prove they were exposed to biological or chemical agents in the Gulf.

Navy Reserve Captain Julia Dyckman, a 27-year veteran of the military, was a supervisor in a 500-bed field hospital in Saudi Arabia during the war. She believes that she was exposed to chemical or biological warfare agents. The 46-year-old nurse has tried unsuccessfully to get her own records from the Navy so she can get treatment for over a half dozen disabling medical conditions. She says the problem is not just with her own records. "We kept statistical records and data that we sent to the Navy Research Center in San Diego, but they said they never received them. We sent medical encounter sheets to the 10,000 we saw over the period we were in Saudi Arabia, and they claim it never arrived. Convenient, isn't it?"

Dyckman said that the field hospital treated many people, but none for chemical illnesses. "If somebody came in with like what I had--open sores, which I think was from a blister agent--we were told that there were no chemicals, so we didn't treat them for that." Dyckman was told that the blisters and open sores were from "desert sand."

After the war, Dyckman served on a committee to interview soldiers returning from the Gulf. "When I started interviewing people, they were complaining of the same illnesses that were plaguing me, so I started documenting the complaints. When I started reporting, the Navy got even with me and took my pay away and stuff. I got a lot of harassment."

A War of Shame

The GWS coverup has made many Gulf war vets bitter and angry. The government and military leaders promised that the troops sent to the Gulf would return with "honor and dignity." The soldiers found out that this was a hollow lie--they were used, discarded and ignored.

And if the government and military establishment of this country has been lying so blatantly about what happened to their own troops, what shameless lies have they told about what the war did to the ordinary people of Iraq?

The reality is that while Pentagon spokesmen held briefings featuring slick videos of "smart" missiles, the U.S. and its allies targeted civilian areas bombings and massacred soldiers helplessly penned in desert bunkers. The U.S. commanders talked about a "glorious" victory, but their pilots created a killing field on the highway out of Kuwait where thousands of defeated Iraqi troops were retreating in disarray. The Bush White House promised to deliver the Kurdish people of Iraq from tyranny, but the post-war back stabs and cynical maneuvers by the U.S. have left the Kurds in an even more desperate position. Officials in Washington preached about bringing "democracy" to the Gulf, but the destruction of key infrastructure in Iraq caused widespread hunger and disease--and the continuing economic sanctions against Iraq since the war have led to the death of half a million Iraqi children.

The U.S. war on Iraq was unjust and shameful, in every way. It was mass murder, conducted by an imperialist power which sent half a million troops and a huge arsenal of high-tech weapons halfway around the world to grab power, profits and control of the world's oil.

Many veterans from the Vietnam War came to a hard and painful realization that they had been part of an unjust and criminal war. They found that there is no honor and dignity in fighting and dying for the rich and powerful, no honor and dignity in bombing and killing the basic people of another country. The GWS coverup reveals once again how the rulers of this brutal system uses their troops as cannonfodder to carry out their dirty crimes.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)