SOMETHING NASTY IN THE GULF

When the Gulf War ended, the Allied forces congratulated themselves on their low casualty rate. In the four years since then, however, thousands of veterans have been reporting mysterious illnesses. The Government says that any connection is imaginary
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE MEN and women interviewed on these pages are all ill, some seriously. So, they claim, are hundreds of other British servicemen and women who fought with them against Saddam Hussein. They call their illness Gulf War syndrome. In the USA, some 20,000 of the 500,000 Americans who fought in the Gulf claim to have the same range of afflictions - known there as Desert Storm syndrome - and more than 2,000 are alleged to have died as a result of them. In Britain, more than 500 veterans are seeking damages from the Ministry of Defence in connection with the syndrome. They say that their illness - whose symptoms range from general malaise to crippling and life-threatening conditions - must be caused by some or all of the following: the large number of vaccinations administered to them over a very short period during the war (including vaccines against anthrax and bubonic plague); their obligatory consumption of NAPS (Nerve Anti Pre-treatment Set) tablets, taken in case of chemical attack; toxic emissions from burning Kuwaiti oil fields; toxins released from bombed Iraqi munitions factories; chemicals in weapons fired by Saddam Hussein's troops; and depleted uranium present in Allied weaponry. The Government's response is that - in the words of defence minister Nicholas Soames - the veterans' claims are "a mixture of unsubstantiated rumour [and] incorrect information" and that there is "no evidence of any medical condition peculiar to service in the Gulf." John Major repeated this line in the Commons earlier this month. Many veterans feel angry at this attitude, and support for them is growing. Edwina Currie MP has been vociferous in their defence, calling their treatment "a national disgrace", while Dr David Clark, shadow defence secretary, has also spoken up for them. "In the USA they failed to find a diagnosis but admitted there is an illness," says Clark. "In this country they have failed to find a diagnosis because they haven't looked into it, and then say there's no illness. It's against the culture of the British establishment to admit they are wrong or to admit responsibility for anything."

An all-party House of Commons Select Committee has recently been hearing evidence on the veterans' complaints, and a Ministry of Defence physician, Wing Commander Bill Coker, has examined around 80 of the alleged victims. But although Coker accepts that many of those he has examined are seriously ill, the official line is still that the various complaints are unconnected - either with each other, or with the Gulf War. "You could write a thriller about the mystery disease the MoD is covering up," Coker told Soldier magazine recently. "It is a marvellous story but it is not good medicine." Coker says that many of the veterans he has examined are displaying symptoms of ME.

In America, the military establishment has conceded that "environmental health considerations" almost certainly caused the mystery illnesses, and Congress has put up $3m to provide in-depth medical assessments. In Britain, the Government seems unwilling to concede anything, but the Gulf War Veterans Association, which is campaigning on behalf of the victims, refuses to be discouraged. "It's clear from the evidence given at the defence Select Committee that the MoD have admitted not only that the NAPS tablets were unlicensed at the time they were taken but that no tests have ever been carried out on the long-term effects of the cocktail of inoculations given to my clients over such a short space of time," says Hilary Meredith of Donn & Co, solicitors in Manchester representing more than 500 veterans. "It can't be a coincidence that so many people are ill. At the very least, the Government and MoD should fund an independent public inquiry into Gulf-related illnesses. The MoD knew, or ought to have known, that subjecting people to a barrage of injections and tablets over a short period could result in such dramatic adverse effects, long- term illness and death. One of my clients died before Christmas and a man phoned me recently to say his son had been so ill that he couldn't cope and had committed suicide."

In November, the War Pensions Agency implicitly acknowledged that the illness of Corporal Robert Lake (interviewed on the right) was caused by injections he had during the war, and awarded him a pension. Altogether, 40,000 British servicemen and women had those injections.

There are, clearly, a number of unanswered questions relating to Gulf War syndrome, not least concerning the role of chemical and biological weapons. Officially, no chemical weapons were used in the Gulf War. Yet there have been persistent suggestions from veterans that their symptoms may have been caused by such weapons. In July 1993 the Czech Republic reported that its units in the Gulf had detected mustard gas and the nerve agent Sarin there, and the Pentagon has accepted this report as valid. Could there have been an unreported chemical attack? Or could Allied bombing of Saddam's arms dumps have resulted in chemical or biological emissions being blown downwind to the troops? And if such weapons are in part responsible for the current suffering of Allied Gulf veterans, how many of the agents involved were sold to Saddam by Western companies? In America, Desert Storm syndrome sufferers are so convinced that chemical weapons might have contributed to their illness that they are mounting a $1bn lawsuit against a consortium of chemical companies.

In Britain, the official position remains that expressed by Nicholas Soames: "No scientific evidence has been found that our forces were exposed to any harmful levels of toxic substances or that medical protective measures... could lead to long-term health problems... I do not believe that there are any grounds at present for... an inquiry."

Yet the mind of officialdom is not entirely closed on the subject. "I am absolutely open-minded about it all," says Wing Commander Coker. "At the beginning we did not know whether there was such a thing as Gulf War syndrome or not, and we still do not."

CORPORAL ROBERT LAKE, 26

I have permanent fatigue, stomach pains, chest pains, headaches, joint pains. I can't focus and I often vomit. Intermittently, I am bedridden. I've been like this since returning from the Gulf in April 1991.

I was married and have two children, aged four and two. We got divorced because of all this, although I didn't really want to. Now I'm living with my parents. I don't see my kids. It's devastating. The forces families officer advised us to split. I wish I'd told him to get stuffed and stop meddling.

I had vaccinations before I left for the Gulf - cholera, tetanus, polio on a sugar lump, and anthrax and whooping cough - because of the threat of chemical warfare, they said. I felt ill for a day but thought nothing of it.

Once we got to the Gulf, we had another anthrax injection. The rumour was that it was making people ill. Two men refused to have it and they were made to sign a document saying they wouldn't hold the MoD responsible if they got anthrax poisoning from Saddam's stockpiles. In the end I gave in because it was too much hassle not to. The sergeant major was quite aggressive about it - the way he put it, it seemed like a military order.

Within an hour of the second injection I fell ill, burning up. I couldn't eat, I had a bad headache and stomach pains, then I collapsed and started vomiting. I lost consciousness, I stopped breathing twice and had to be resuscitated. I recovered sufficiently to be sent back to work a day or two later and the doctor said there was nothing wrong with the injections and tried to pin it on something else. It's so obvious it came from them.

Later, I was repairing chemical detection equipment, but I was never briefed that it might have been contaminated while it was in the field - it could have picked up germ warfare from the factories we blew up. No one said anything about gloves. I've become more and more ill since then. I have no energy. It's like being in a shell, unable to get out of it, a young mind trapped in an old body.

I thought the Gulf War was a good cause - like any war when a country is invaded by an aggressor. But my outlook has changed. I was brought up to think that if something goes wrong, the people in authority will look after you. But I was a pawn, doing the work the senior MoD officials would never do themselves. They didn't give a damn about us. I was cannon fodder and now I'm a pain in the backside for going to the Press.

TONY FLINT, 47

This is what my 14-year-old step-daughter wrote: "My dad was a happy cheerful man and he never used to shout. He would play with me and laugh. When he came back from the Gulf War he was so different, I couldn't believe he was my dad. He shouted at me and never laughed or played. He is always very grumpy and I have seen him cry. I know he loves me - the hospital has put him on tablets and he seems a little better. I hope soon he will be well and we'll be a normal family again."

I was always very calm but now I pick arguments with my wife. I shout my head off. There are days when I burst out crying for no reason. I've thought about suicide, but I'm a coward. I'm always shattered - I can't get up the stairs without getting breathless. I've slowed down, like a very old man. My emotions are shot to pieces. I have nightmares and flashbacks. I scream in my sleep, and my wife has to wake me up.

I was called up from the Reserves, having been in the army from 1964 to 1974. I was a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. I had the basic injections and had a bad reaction - burning up in the night. Then I had the next lot a week later. Nine lots of serum in my body: I thought it seemed a hell of a lot. But nobody was questioning it. It was orders - we did it.

I see a counsellor at the Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital in Woolwich once a month, but if I mention the Gulf they sidetrack me. No way will they talk about the injections. My concentration has gone. Times are hard - even with pension and benefits I only get £140 a week for the three of us. Before the Gulf I worked in factories and as a post-mortem technician, and then in the Post Office, but I lost my job there when I joined up. I had a job as a benefits adviser, but as I got more and more ill I was too exhausted and broke down. I had to give it up.

I believed in going to the Gulf and only prayed that if I was killed my life would save someone else's. I believed in it because of Saddam's atrocities, butchering civilians, children. The oil side and the money side never occurred to me, but now I realise that we were only sent there to protect the West's interest in oil. Take Bosnia - there's nothing the Government wants there, and so they only send a token force to make it look good.

I feel so let down.

KEVIN WILSON, 39

I'd been in the army 18 years and was in the 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. I drove an armoured track vehicle; we were 300m behind the front line keeping radar and radio communications going. It was terrifying, and I still have nightmares - burnt-out vehicles with the bodies of dead Iraqis hanging out of them, going along behind a truck in the desert sand, seeing bits of people left in the sand after being run over - Iraqi soldiers who fled as we advanced and were shot in the back by their own officers. I'm haunted by the slaughter. Part of my problem is post-traumatic stress disorder. But that's only part. I had all the vaccinations and the NAPS tablets. I am breathless, I can't walk more than 10 minutes, I'm always tired, I don't have the energy to do anything.

I took the option of redundancy because it seemed like a good financial packet. I had a medical the day I left: 10 minutes - a waste of time. I've now got spots like mosquito bites on my neck and face and I need 12 hours' sleep a night. I'm a security porter at Newcastle City Council and sleep when I'm not at work. I used to be up at 6.30am for physical training. Now I get pains in my lower stomach and suffer from diarrhoea. The MoD put it all down to post- traumatic stress - but that's not the whole story.

I never had much of a social life and I live on my own, but now I suffer from heightened aggression. I never had a temper, never used to snap. I lose my temper with people like my little nieces who I love.

I'm going to see an NHS psychiatrist through my GP, but by the time I see one I'll have been waiting for four months.

I've no complaint against the Army - those were the best 18 years of my life. My problem is with the MoD, because they say there's no such thing as Gulf War syndrome. If there isn't, why are we all sick? The US has admitted it exists. We took the same NAPS tablets and had the same vaccinations. We fought the same battles.

RICHARD TURNBULL, 43

I volunteered to go to the Gulf. I believed in it. It was what I had worked towards for 17 years as an RAF corporal. So committed was I that I received three commendations in the Queens' birthday honours and New Year's honours in 1980 and 1988. I was in Dharan in Saudi when I had the vaccinations for anthrax, bubonic plague and whooping cough, and I wasn't very happy about it. At first it was a recommendation, but so few wanted it that it was made an order. There was no informed consent - we were told nothing of possible side-effects. It was: you will have it - bang.

I had a reaction that night - fever and breathing difficulties - which lasted 10 days. We were also taking NAPS and BATS (Bio- logical Agent Treatment Sets) - massive doses of antibiotics. Whether you took BATS or not depended on your section commander.

I was in a nuclear and biological cell, building shelters and instructing people in the use of protective clothing and instruments such as NAIADs (Nerve Agency Infantry Advance Detectors) and CAMs (Chemical Agents Monitors). On 20 January there was a Scud attack at 8pm. It landed on the airfield and within seconds every NAIAD and CAM blasted off chemical warnings. We were on the highest alert - had to don special protective equipment and take shelter - for eight hours. There were thousands of us. We were later told that the NAIADs and CAMs had gone off because of unburnt fuel from aircraft taking off, but aircraft took off all the time, and they had never gone off together like that before. I tested the CAMs and NAIADs next day. There were no faults in them.

There were two other Scuds that night, one at Al-Jabayl and one at Tabuk, and the CAMs and NAIADs went off at all three units. Tabun and Sarin were two of the chemicals detected by the French, Czechs and Germans that night. Tabun and Sarin act dangerously on the nervous system. I'm pretty sure they've affected me.

With the second injections - anthrax with whooping cough mixed, I think - I again developed a high fever, chest infection, difficulty with breathing, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea (which I've had ever since). I've been told that the plague vaccine we were given wasn't licensed for general use and should only have been given to patients who had been specially examined - the only examination we got was roll your sleeve up. The dosage is supposed to depend on your weight - we were never weighed. Defence minister Nicholas Soames replied to a question from Edwina Currie saying that the NAPS weren't licensed for widespread use until April that year - and yet I'd been taking them every six hours for 47 days.

I used to swim 250 lengths a day, I can't even walk far now. I've got short-term memory loss - I sometimes forget where I am - and have severe coughing. I'm on inhalers. I've got my 26th chest infection since I returned from the Gulf. I've also got allergies to petrol, perfume and brandy - I used to drink shorts but now my throat closes up and it cripples me.

My gripe isn't against the RAF, it's against the MoD and two prats called Nicholas Soames and Jeremy Hanley (former defence minister). They won't speak to the Gulf veterans, they won't answer our questions.

I took voluntary redundancy; I wasn't going to advance the way I was. My family life is badly affected. I fly off the handle, I cry. And if we have sex, within a couple of seconds I'm coughing my lungs out. What could be more of a turn-off?

PAUL ASH, 27

As an infantry soldier with the Fusiliers, I was in the front line, it was what we were trained to do. We went to the Gulf full of pride, to do something for our country, but at the end of the day the person on the battleground is just a number: if he's killed, tough - send out another. It's OK for Thatcher and Major and the Defence Secretary - what do they know of the heartaches of war? Anyone can issue orders to people, but actually appreciating what it's like living with the threat of chemical or biological attack is something else.

The Gulf War was a balls-up, but it saved the Tories, and now, with Gulf War Syndrome coming out, the Government and the MoD are too frightened to say the Gulf War wasn't a success because it poisoned its own troops.

I had the vaccinations and NAPS tablets, and now I have joint pains, stomach problems, constant nausea, exhaustion. Nothing has been diagnosed, although I've had six endoscopies. My wife says I'm not who I was. I'm aggressive, silent and forgetful and I've had violent outbursts outside the family - completely unreasonable ones. Sometimes I forget where I am.

I saw something about Eddie Blench in the local paper a year ago so I rang him and we started the Gulf Veterans Association. People were coming down with something loosely known as Desert Storm Syndrome. It affected everyone. We got high-ranking officers and privates asking for help, unable to understand what was happening to them. We had a national conference last year, with 90 attending. Now there are 200 with us, but that's the tip of the iceberg. We all have at least three symptoms in common, the same range of complaints. I object to the vast amount of drugs we were given, and the MoD and the Government have failed to investigate the obvious effects on us of the vaccinations.

The Gulf Veterans Association was formed to help any service personnel whose health was affected by the Gulf War and exists to campaign for medical help, to prove that Gulf Syndrome exists and to prevent anything like this ever happening again. It can be a killer - the veterans in the USA have a register of their people who have died. And there are those who have committed suicide - I alone know of seven.

EDDIE BLENCH, 33

I was a lance-corporal and a paramedic in the First Armoured Division HQ and Signal Reg- iment and served 13 years in the army, in the Falklands and Northern Ireland. I was prepared to serve my country; mentally prepared, anyway, but not physically, because what happened in the Gulf was totally unexpected.

I had all the vaccinations, and I was part of a small team which did the vaccinations. I must have done 24,000 for bubonic plague and anthrax. We were working 18 hours a day, travelling out to the troops. We were told we might have a reaction like 'flu for 24 hours, but I saw some very bad reactions, people collapsing, being "casivacced" [evacuated as a casualty].

Two days before we came back, I was blinded and hospitalised. It happened suddenly, after we had been burning rubbish. I saw a Norwegian, an American and a British specialist, who all suggested a toxin caused the damage. I've never fully recovered my sight. I'm on my eighth pair of glasses in three years. They keep having to make them stronger. I worked as a physical training instructor before, but six months after I came back I failed the basic fitness test. I was out of breath and really fatigued.

Asthma was diagnosed, and I'm on medication four times a day and steroids as well. I sweat profusely, I have painful blisters on my scalp, and pins and needles in my legs. I have mood swings and heightened aggression, and my family have to bear the brunt. I put it down to NAPS, the vaccinations and the petro-chemical fires. The MoD denies that Saddam used chemical warfare, but I'm convinced the warheads were full of it.

My standard of living has dropped drastically. As a soldier I was on £300 a week, and house and bills were paid for. Now I'm self-employed, delivering newspapers and getting £180 a week for everything. I'm waiting for a decision about a war pension - I've been waiting since October 1993. I feel badly let down by the Government, who haven't even ordered an inquiry. David Clark, the Labour party's defence spokesman, has supported us since Day One, but it's hard for us to gather information, as we're dependent on donations. And what of the future? My wife doesn't want any more children - one of the veterans had a baby born with no ears. Perhaps whatever is wrong with us could be genetically passed on.

HILARY JONES, 44

I spent 16 years in the Queen Alexandra Royal Army Nursing Corps and retired in 1988 at the rank of major. I volunteered to go to the Gulf, because in all my days in the forces I had never been to war. Before I retired I had been doing research towards developing a manual for nursing aides to prepare them for their wartime role. Although my research led me to believe that stockpiled equipment for nursing use would be pretty old-fashioned and inadequate, it didn't stop me wanting to go. One of the things I discovered was that the stoma bags were 30 years out of date, but in modern warfare it's estimated that 30 per cent of all casualties would suffer abdominal injury. Some of the camp beds dated back to World War One, when a soldier's height was an average of 5ft 6in, a lot of the guys now are 6ft. A lot of nursing time in the Gulf War was spent developing Heath-Robinson answers to nursing problems. Perhaps I should have been warned by these woeful inadequacies.

I had a lot of vaccinations - anthrax, whooping cough, meningitis, hepatitis B, polio booster, yellow fever - I did wonder how my immune system would cope with the onslaught, but I didn't have a major reaction at the time. Then we started getting a lot of troops suffering from reactions to the injections and there was a 'flu-like virus going round - high temperature, headaches, chest infection. It could have been a viral infection, or reaction to the injections, or the result of biological agents released by Saddam Hussein. I had it myself, and have never been clear of it since. I was out there for the duration of the war, and was ill from the first week.

I came home with a cough like I'd never had before. Some days I looked like death. I bought an exercise bike for £300 because I thought maybe I was unfit, but my stamina grew weaker and weaker. I had chest infections and thrush, which I've never had before. I've taught nursing students for years but my mind went blank, my concentration, memory - all gone to pot. I developed a stammer. I'm literate and articulate, but not now. I used to enjoy doing the Telegraph crossword before, but I can't do it now. I can't go in sunlight, I get a horrendous rash, fever and severe headaches. It's getting worse. I was angry when my GP asked me if I was menopausal or depressed, but I knew something was wrong. I wanted more investigations. He took some blood and discovered that my white cells show my immune system is reacting to something unknown.

I was in a romantic relationship, but we split up. It was heartbreaking, and a lot of it was because of this illness, which has no name and no end and can't be understood. I'm very isolated. I've been very ill the last six months and unable to work. The college where I teach is downsizing, so I'll be made redundant. I'm terribly worried about my mortgage. I'm in the prime of life, but will I ever work again?

I certainly think my illness is chemically related, a combination of the vaccinations, the pollution in the air from the Kuwaiti oil fires and the chemicals blown downwind from Iraq after the bombing of the Iraq chemical factories.

The MoD should accept that people's lives are ruined and they need taking care of. It's not good enough to say Gulf War Syndrome doesn't exist, that it's all in the mind, when people's bodies are crippled with unexplained illness.

MAJOR IAN HILL, 48

I was in the Royal Army Medical Corps and a senior nurse of 30 years' standing, but I retired in 1984 and was in the reserves at the time the Gulf War began. I felt it my duty to go. I joined 205 General Hospital Unit, based at Riyadh airport. I was in charge of the operating theatres and training the staff. On 26 December 1990, I was vaccinated against polio, typhoid and tetanus, hepatitis B, and then, on 3 January 1991, cholera, yellow fever, meningitis, anthrax, whooping cough and bubonic plague. My MP, Sir Fergus Montgomery, has written to the warfare laboratory at Porton Down; they refused to answer his questions because of the Official Secrets Act. The MoD admitted that the infections probably stemmed from the Gulf War, but they wouldn't admit to negligence. I was tested by Wing Commander Coker. He didn't argue with the two civilian consultants, one of whom found that my chest infections stem from the initial infection in the Gulf.

I fell ill the first week and was hospitalised. It was diagnosed as bronchial pneumonia, and when I got no better I was evacuated to England. By April 1991 I also had photophobia (when you can't stand the light) and pains as though someone was squeezing my eyeballs from inside my head. Then one eyeball slid towards my nose and the other went up, so I couldn't see. I was referred to Manchester Royal Infirmary and investigated for a brain tumour. I was delirious with pain, and they gave me diamorphine and very strong antibiotics, and then steroids. I've been on steroids ever since, and I'm never without pain. From being a very fit man of 13st, I'm now 16st 7lb, and I wheeze like you wouldn't believe. I also took the NAPS tablets when I was in the Gulf and they say they weren't sure whether the Scuds had chemical or biological agents in their warheads, but evidence is cropping up that they did.

I started three nursing homes for the elderly, but in the last three years I've been off sick for almost a year. I get no war pension. My illness has a bad effect on my family. I used to take my five-year-old swimming; now I can barely pick her up. I was always placid, but now I fly off the handle and I can't sleep even when I'm sedated. I'm knackered after climbing the stairs, but I have to press on or my business will go to the wall.

PAUL CARR, 27

It was my job, I was paid to be a soldier. I was excited driving a Spartan along the front line. We carried the missiles fired at the enemy. Night- time was frightening out there in the Saudi desert while the bombing was going on; we could hear it in the distance and see the flashes. It echoed through the desert. My biggest fear was of getting hit by Iraqi planes. In fact, it was nine lads from my regiment who were killed by friendly fire. It was my mates who got killed.

After the second anthrax vaccination, I was out of it for two days, lying in my sleeping bag vomiting. But I was fine two days later.

I came home in April 1991 and everything was fine. A year later, I had an epileptic fit. There's no history of it in my family; it was grand mal, a full wobbler. I had three more fits over the next year and developed other ailments - rashes, aching limbs, dizziness, breathlessness and exhaustion. Then, last year, they gave me a brain scan and found a tumour. The consultant said I'd had it for three years. I put two and two together - it developed after the Gulf. I blame it on the depleted uranium in the warheads we fired.

After the war was over we went souvenir-hunting on the battlefield, having a good root around in tanks we'd blown up that the Iraqis had abandoned, looking for helmets, radios, all sorts. Of course we weren't allowed to bring them home, although you were allowed to keep uniforms if you found them - they were just lying around. Some guys took photos. The depleted uranium would have been in the atmosphere and on the objects we were picking up, but I'm no scientist, I can't prove it.

I have mysterious rashes all over my face and on my kneecaps and ankles, and I am having radiotherapy for my tumour. I get pains with the rashes, so bad that my wife has had to take me to hospital crying in agony. How she hasn't left me I don't know - the mood swings and tempers are terrible. She's not only had to cope with me, but we have two children aged one and two, and both were born with heart defects. I blame that on the Gulf. The two-year-old has already had one operation, but it didn't work, so she'll have to have it again. Luckily, the conditions are curable.

I had everything going for me - a good job as a taxi driver, a lovely home and family - and then I get kicked in the teeth by all this. I can't work, I'm on a war pension now. It's not much to live on, and my wife can't work. I have a comfort allowance for her to look after me. I went to war to fight for my country, and now all of us soldiers and our families who are suffering deserve help from the MoD. They shouldn't turn their backs, but that's what they're doing.

! For further information about Gulf War Syndrome, or about the veterans' reunion which takes place on 4 March in Newcastle, contact Paul Ash (0670 736283) or Eddie Blench (091 438 2063).

Comments