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Gulf War casualties include health and truth

After more than five years of denials, Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency officials have begun to admit that "big numbers" of U.S. soldiers who served in the Persian Gulf War were exposed to chemical toxins that may be severely affecting the health of veterans and their families.

Prodded by pressure from veterans organizations and sympathetic members of Congress, Department of Defense officials have revised estimates four times in recent months of how many soldiers "probably" came into contact with dangerous chemical substances. The nerve agent sarin was among dangerous substances unleashed following the 1991 Allied destruction of Iraqi weapons caches stored in the Khamisiyah bunker.

The latest estimate from the Department of Defense, based on CIA calculations, speaks of more than 15,000 soldiers exposed during that single attack of the 35-week-long Operation Desert Storm. This figure is dramatically lower than than the 100,000 and more reports of a range of illnesses suffered by veterans and their family members since the war ended.

The official disclosure of this information, though limited, is important because the Pentagon has begun to contradict its own version of reality, staggering slowly out of a web of denial about what really happened during Operation Desert Storm. Official calculations of soldiers exposed to nerve agents at Khamisiyah alone have jumped from the zero figure maintained for years, to 400 in June, to 5,000 a few months later, to upwards of 15,000.

Both the Pentagon and the CIA, however, continue to refute claims from two former CIA analysts, Patrick G. and Robin Eddington, that agency officials attempted to cover up evidence of 60 incidents like the one at Khamisiyah. The Eddingtons have resigned from the CIA and are writing a book about what they allege the U.S. government knew about the risks of exposure.

The Pentagon's admission of the possibilities of exposure contradicts previous statements from officials such as Dr. Stephen Joseph, former assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. During his March 8, 1995, testimony before Congress, Joseph insisted "there is not pervasive evidence of exposures, even after much scrutiny." He was echoing a June 23, 1994, Defense Department/Defense Science Board report stating, "There is no evidence that either chemical or biological warfare was deployed at any level, or that there was any exposure of U.S. service members to chemical or biological warfare agents."

But documents obtained by the Gulf War Veterans of Georgia through the Freedom of Information Act and published by Dennis Bernstein of Pacific News Service in March 1995 suggest that Joseph and other top level officials who repeated similar statements -- CIA Director John Deutch, for example, on "60 Minutes" last year -- were either shut out of the Pentagon's information loop or were not reporting the whole truth. Their ignorance or denial may have put in jeopardy the well-being of thousands of Americans who served in the gulf and their offspring.

A seven-day nuclear, biological and chemical log released to the veterans' organization, for example, suggests that the Army knew from the start that exposure was a high probability. The log chronicles on-the-ground incidents of exposure from Scud missile attacks and from the shelling of an arms storage complex. "Report detected GA/GB (chemical agents) and that hazard is flowing down from factory/storage bombed in Iraq. Predictably, this has become/is going to become a problem," one of the entries states. "Israeli police confirmed nerve gas," another informs.

Despite these internal documents and news stories about veterans experiencing everything from aching joints to the birth of children without ears or with stumps for hands, Department of Defense officials continued to insist that no proof of exposure existed. It was only in June of this year that the Pentagon concurred that the Khamisiyah bunker contained shells with chemical warheads.

It is highly probable that many of the chemical warheads in question were made in the United States by government and private companies -- all of which could be held accountable for an Agent Orange-style settlement in the case of proof of a direct link between the chemical agents to post-Gulf War deaths and illnesses.

The Khamisiyah bunker explosion is not the only Gulf War skeleton haunting veterans and Pentagon officials. Congressional reports claim thousands of soldiers were forced to accept a series of potentially hazardous vaccinations. At least one, an antibotulism vaccine, had never been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. A December 1995 report from the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs said veterans, under threat of court martial, were ordered not to discuss the vaccines with anyone, even physicians who might treat future symptoms.

The Senate report described the safety of the botulism vaccine as "unknown," and it insisted that another vaccine, against anthrax, an infectious disease, be considered as "a potential cause for undiagnosed illnesses in Persian Gulf military personnel."

It is unlikely that these disclosures would have come about were it not for the efforts of persistent people like Paul Sullivan of the Gulf War Veterans of Georgia and Joyce Riley of the American Gulf War Veterans Association. They have for years lived by what Sullivan described as a Jeffersonian belief that the price citizens must pay for democracy is "eternal vigilance" of government policies.

They and other members of their organizations joined by a few members of Congress have taken major strides to make deception -- rather than truth -- the new casualty of war. Few Americans can claim comparable track records. For the most part, the U.S. public and mainstream media companies swallowed almost whole the military's version of reality during the Gulf War.

Recent disclosures make clear how necessary it is to listen to those who speak from outside the media mainstream. Gulf War veterans and their families already face risks to their health and lives because the disclosure of much of the truth about the war was delayed. As citizens, we owe it to Gulf War babies born with deformities to take a cue from Jefferson and the Gulf War veterans and exercise greater vigilance of our government's accounts of its actions in the foreign policy arena.

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 1996