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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.

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Sunday, April 13

Coalition troops face Gulf War syndrome risks

By Cathy Spaulding | Muskogee Daily Phoenix

MUSKOGEE, Okla. - Pinning down the exact cause of the so-called Gulf War syndrome is like looking for a particular grain of sand in the desert.

Symptoms are too scattered to come up with a concrete definition of the syndrome, medical experts agree. Yet they also say veterans of the first Gulf War suffer from real illnesses that could be traced to their deployment.

``Gulf War syndrome or Gulf War illness is a media term,'' said Kelly Rutherford, nurse practitioner at the Muskogee Veterans Affairs Medical Center. ``There is no diagnosable syndrome. However, research does show a higher proportion of gulf war veterans showing certain symptoms than those who did not serve in the Persian Gulf area.''

The Department of Veterans Affairs lists all sorts of symptoms of gulf war-related illnesses: fatigue, skin rash, muscle and joint pain, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal problems, chest pain, headache and difficulty concentrating.

Rutherford assembles data for a national registry of gulf war veterans. Participating veterans discuss their war experiences, including possible exposure to environmental or health hazards they may have had.

The latest report, September 2002, lists 630,900 veterans, Rutherford said.

According to a VA brochure, gulf war veterans reported symptoms two to three times more frequently than service members who were not deployed. Some veterans reported multiple health problems while others were in good or excellent health.

The Pentagon cites a variety of causes, including oil well fires, pesticides, particulates and contaminated, overchlorinated or improperly stored water. Another suspected cause is depleted uranium, an extremely dense metal used to reinforce tanks, armor or armor-piercing missiles.

Rutherford, who flew a medical helicopter during the gulf war, said exposure to oil fires may have caused the skin rashes that still bother him. Iraqis destroyed more than 750 oil wells throughout Kuwait and in the neutral zone between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 1990-91.

``I was a Medevac helicopter pilot and real early, my crew was sent to western Iraq,'' he said. ``That's where they were blowing up oil wells. Many people were overcome with the heat. I first felt a rash when I was flying into the smoke. As the winds changed, the hospital was engulfed in smoke.''

Rutherford said his skin rash is a nuisance that spreads on his face and neck.

``It itches a lot and turns bright red,'' he said. ``I take a little Benadryl when the itching gets bad, and in two or three days, it's gone.'' He said other gulf war veterans reported hives and bumps all over their bodies. Others need steroid injections.

``A minority say they're getting worse,'' Rutherford said, adding that some gulf war veterans may show delayed symptoms later in their lives.

As for troops now deployed in Iraq, many of the same risks remain, he said.

``They still face oil well fires, dust and chemicals, and they still use depleted uranium in the tanks.''

Austin Camacho of the Pentagon's Deployment Health Support Directorate said current coalition forces are less likely to report the same problems as their gulf war predecessors.

``But it would be arrogant to say nothing will happen,'' he said. Some gulf war mistakes, such as wearing dog flea collars to ward off sand ticks, aren't likely to be repeated.

Troops and leaders receive briefings on basic health, including keeping hydrated and using equipment carefully. Doctors and officers also are being advised to listen to troops' concerns and complaints.

``They're told to treat the service members with respect, take them seriously, work at trying to figure out what their problem is,'' Camacho said, adding that counselors are working with troops to help ease stress. ``It used to be they were told to tough it out.''

Military personnel also are more closely monitoring what's going on where in Iraq, Camacho said.

``Troops receive pre- and post-deployment health evaluations,'' he said. ``They also are surveying the environment - the soil, the water, the air - to know exactly where it was that something happened.''

Units are working to improve alarms for chemical or biological attacks, and the military is closely monitoring vaccines, he said.

``Even though ailments from the first gulf war seem less of a threat,'' Camacho said, ``some questions may remain unanswered.''