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30 Years Of Gulf War Illness: How U.S. Troops' Health Was Compromised By Toxic Exposures In Kuwait

In this Nov. 4, 1990 file photo, responding to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, troops of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division deploy across the Saudi desert on during preparations prior to the Gulf War.  (Greg English/AP/File)
In this Nov. 4, 1990 file photo, responding to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, troops of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division deploy across the Saudi desert on during preparations prior to the Gulf War. (Greg English/AP/File)

This week marks 30 years since President George H.W. Bush announced the start of the ground war in Operation Desert Storm.

The two-month-long war, which ended Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, claimed the lives of 154 American troops.

But something dangerous loomed during the war that still persists three decades later. More than 100,000 American veterans of Operation Desert Storm came home with wounds you can’t really see — constant pain and fatigue, plus stomach, memory and neurological issues.

These “debilitating health issues,” as Gulf War veteran Anthony Hardie describes it, became known as the Gulf War illness.

A congressionally mandated committee that investigated the illness says it was triggered by pesticides and medication that U.S. troops were ordered to take to protect them against nerve gas.

Hardie, a former staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, says his health problems commenced during his deployment to Kuwait and never subsided. He remembers the odors of chemical warfare agents while traversing a particular Iraqi bunker complex. He and his fellow Army comrades were ordered to take anti-nerve agent pills known as pyridostigmine bromide.

Two-thirds of his team became sick after ingesting the pills, he says. Today, Hardie still suffers from respiratory problems, fatigue and chronic diarrhea — health issues that never went away after first experiencing them in the Gulf, he explains.

At the time, he didn’t make the connection to the pesticides, but he did have a hunch about the pills.

“It was pretty obvious when we took them that we were getting sick from them,” he says.

Later, he says he realized after going through the bunker complex, he began “coughing up what looked like pieces of lung tissue” and eventually connected the dots.

Hardie sought medical treatment from the team’s medic, but soldiers often face obstacles to getting the best medical treatment under wartime conditions, he says.

Now working as an advocate with Veterans for Common Sense, Hardie says he’s heard similar stories from other Gulf War vets who also experienced symptoms while in combat and came back to U.S. soil with unresolved health problems that “simply just never went away.”

Dealing with Gulf War illness has been “extremely challenging,” he says, not only because of the toll it takes on the body but also the continuous fight for adequate health care and recognition from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Unfortunately, VA continues to deny most Gulf War veterans’ claims. We have a little saying about that — ‘delay, deny, wait until we die’ before they’re approved,” he says.

The VA has told vets struggling with Gulf War illness that it’s “all in their heads,” Hardie claims.

There are hundreds of thousands of veterans like Hardie whose illness from toxic exposure is being ignored by the federal government.

Jim Binns, a Vietnam War veteran and advocate, knows this well. He chaired the committee that researched and investigated the pesticides and medication Gulf War troops endured. Binns says Hardie’s story is typical of what he’s heard over the past 30 years from other veterans.

“I became involved in this about 20 years ago because Congress was unhappy with the fact that the federal government was doing so little for these veterans who clearly had come home with major health problems, and it passed a law that created a committee to be appointed by the secretary of Veterans Affairs, which I chaired for 12 years,” he says.

Binns was optimistic in the beginning. It was just a matter of using research to prove veterans’ illnesses stemmed from toxic exposure in Kuwait, he says, and then once that was finished, he would start work on finding treatments.

“Instead, what we discovered was that the focus of government research efforts was to cover up the problem,” he says.

A recent example, he says, is how the VA’s major survey on Gulf War veterans’ health included questions on psychological health but nothing on Gulf War illness symptoms. He likens the situation to how the government dealt with the aftermath of wielding Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

“Toxic wounds have — in all the recent wars, the wars of our memory — been the major health problem. More veterans suffer from them than from exposure to bombs and bullets,” Binns says. “The government consistently has refused to recognize these problems. They deny today 80% of Gulf War claims and burn pits claims.”

Money has to do with it, he says, but he narrows the problem down to the decision-makers involved.

“The people who initially denied that Agent Orange caused health problems are in many cases the same people who denied Gulf War issues and who today are denying that veterans who were exposed to burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from health problems as a result,” he says.

Burn pits, utilized by the U.S. military to dispose of human waste and trash in war zones, can release toxicants into the air. In 2019, President Biden said he believes the death of his son Beau Biden to glioblastoma, a brain cancer, was a result of Beau Biden’s exposure to burn pits during his service in Iraq.

“He spent a year in Iraq and came back decorated. And because of his exposure to burn pits, in my view, I can’t prove it yet, he came back with stage 4 glioblastoma,” Biden said. “Eighteen months he lived, knowing that he was going to die.”

Binns says if he was still in his government advising role today, he would try to tell the president he is correct in his conviction. If Biden demanded a thorough review of veterans and toxic exposure, Binns is sure the administration would discover there are positive changes that could be made to help vets struggling with Gulf War illness.

“It would be such a positive step for the government to take to become advocates and helpers of these heroes who have given their lives to their country, but their country refuses to care for them,” Binns says.

Hardie isn’t holding his breath on change coming anytime soon. It’s been decades dealing with ailments that “makes every aspect of living difficult,” he says.

Fatigue can send him back to bed multiple times a day. Days when he feels a hint of normalcy are few and far in between. But it doesn’t slow his fight for justice for as many as a third of Gulf War veterans and countless others suffering from toxic exposures like burn pits.

These veterans “need to be taken care of, both with effective treatments and the health care side” he says, and the VA needs to approve “their continually denied disability claims so that they can have some sort of adequate subsistence while they’re battling these health issues.”


Alex Ashlock produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.