Soldiers, Researchers Continue Battle With Gulf War Syndrome On Homefront
Posted May 16, 2003 11:27 a.m. EDT
CUMBERLAND COUNTY, N.C. — Upon returning from Iraq, all troops will undergo a comprehensive medical review. It is a way to track any outbreaks of Gulf War syndrome if they occur this time around.
Thousand of veterans from the first Gulf War are still experiencing problems. Many have concerns for the troops who fought this time.
As a staff sergeant in the Army, Sherrie McGahee used to run marathons. Today, she can barely push her own wheelchair.
"It's the simple things that are most aggravating. I'm an independent person and I feel like my independence is gone," she said with slurred speech.
A year after returning from the Gulf War, McGahee started experiencing joint pain and was diagnosed with nerve damage. She had hoped to make the Army a lifelong career. Instead, after being on disability for several years, she received retirement papers in January.
Even as she struggles, McGahee said she has no regrets.
"I did my job and I'm proud of being American and being free," she said.
To date, the federal government has conducted more than 224 research projects to identify a cause for Gulf War syndrome. After spending more than $200 million, the government still does not have one.
Dr. Donald Schmechel is a Duke University neurologist who is also on the staff of the Durham VA. He said it is hard to pinpoint a cause, because he believes there is more than just one.
Schmechel lists a number of possibilities, including, "the harsh desert climate, sinus problems with oil fires, sandfly bites, exposure to biological warfare, illnesses like in civilians brought on by stress and the use of insecticides and nerve gas."
Although it does not appear Iraq fired any chemical or biological weapons this time, McGahee and others are still concerned for the troops.
"I fear for them coming back," she said.
The military says it is doing a lot more to prevent what happened last time. Along with pre- and post-deployment health screenings, they have surveillance teams out in the field recording air, water and soil samples. Troops also went into battle with improved chemical suits and masks.
Even so, veteran Doug Waddell suggests troops keep good records of their own, just in case they become sick.
"I pray each and every night it doesn't happen, not only to soldiers, but soldiers families," he said.
After the Gulf War, Waddell experienced memory loss, muscle aches and many other common symptoms. Years after the first fight in Iraq, the VA's Persian Gulf Examination Program remains busy.
"The complaints are treatable with conventional medicine," said Dr. Jeannette Stein of the Persian Gulf program.
For veterans like McGahee and Waddell, it is quality of life they miss most.
According to the
National Gulf War Resource Center
, there were 697,000 Gulf War veterans. Of those veterans, 207,000 have filed claims for disability related to the war and 167,000 are receiving compensation at a cost of nearly $2 billion a year.