Gulf war syndrome? `No - it was pesticides'

Insecticide sprays are blamed for ruining the health of hundreds of soldiers
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The Independent Online
Paul Ash went off to war bursting with pride and prepared to die in the cause of bringing down Saddam Hussein.

Last night, he was struggling to come to terms with the possibility that his life had been ruined not by the Iraqis but by pesticide sprayed by his colleagues and others in the British Army.

Arriving in the Saudi Arabian desert as a 24-year-old Fusilier, Mr Ash had been alarmed by the ferocity of the local mosquitoes. The insects swarmed off nearby marshlands for a feeding frenzy on the British troops encamped in the desert.

"We had never experienced anything like it before. The mosquitoes were taking great chunks out of the troops and the lads were coming out in massive blotches," he said.

The Army's response was to bring in thousands of gallons of pesticide which was sprayed liberally on tents, clothing and vehicles. Aircraft spewed the chemicals on to the "tent villages" while soldiers walked around with hand-held sprays to douse their colleagues.

Mr Ash said: "It was just like a mist of the stuff. We didn't really have time to take notice of what was going on and nobody told us they were spraying us for a reason. We just assumed it was because of the mosquitoes."

It was only after Mr Ash returned from the war - as a hero - to his Northumberland home that he realised he may not have escaped unscathed.

Suddenly, the once super-fit infantryman was so weak he could hardly walk. He had to give up football and then began to show symptoms of serious illness. "I was constantly vomiting, I had pains in my joints and my stomach hurt so much I thought I had ulcers," he said. He left the Army and although he has found work as a local government officer, he is registered as 60 per cent disabled.

Now 29, he greeted yesterday's announcement by the Ministry of Defence with relief: "It is very good that eventually somebody has stood up and said, `Hang on, we have done something wrong here and we have not investigated it in the manner that we should have.'

"It shows that, five years after the guys first started complaining, the MoD are finally accepting that they may have damaged the lads. But it should have come earlier."

Mr Ash is one of 740 Gulf veterans suing the Ministry of Defence for compensation for illness they have suffered since returning from the conflict. Those who believe in the so-called Gulf war syndrome say it has caused at least 15 deaths. The families of 30 more Gulf veterans who have taken their own lives blame the experience of the Gulf for bringing on depression which led to their suicides.

The MoD still refuses to acknowledge that Gulf war syndrome exists.

Nicholas Soames, the armed forces minister, said last year that the veterans' claims were "a mixture of unsubstantiated rumour and incorrect information". His revelation yesterday that "organophosphate pesticides were used more widely in the Gulf than we had previously been led to believe" was seen as a softening in the government stance.

Some veterans blame their listlessness, nausea and aching limbs on the tablets the troops were given to protect them from chemical attack by the Iraqis. Others attribute the symptoms to post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the war itself.

Mr Ash believes the latest MoD admission is evidence of similarities with the fate of some farmers who have become chronically depressed and violent after being exposed to pesticides used in sheep-dip. "I think there is a definite link," he said.

The battle for recognition

FEBRUARY 1991 - The Gulf war ends.

JUNE 1993 - Gulf war syndrome hits the headlines as

Today newspaper reveals that hundreds of soldiers were suffering from bleeding gums, hair and weight loss and facial paralysis. MoD denies the ailment exists.

MAY 1994 - A committee of independent medical experts says that the illness does exist but fail to pinpoint a cause.

NOVEMBER 1994 - 24 British Gulf war veterans have requests for legal aid granted to prepare claims against the MoD.

FEBRUARY 1995 - 480 sufferers of the syndrome inform the MoD that they intend to sue for compensation.

APRIL 1995 - Government announces in the Lords that it is not prepared to pay compensation.

JUNE 1995 - Ministry of Defence dismisses Gulf war syndrome, saying that alleged sufferers are victims of chronic fatigue.

NOVEMBER 1995 - The defence select commitee criticises the MoD for being insensitive to the victims of the syndrome.

MARCH 1996 - Tests on veterans shows first physical evidence that the syndrome exists.

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