Sick Gulf troops suspect cover-up: Mystery surrounds cause of US veterans' illnesses

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The Independent Online
A REPUBLICAN Congressman has become allergic to anything green. A college football player and wrestler died from multiple cancers. A helicopter pilot is undergoing chemotherapy and his baby daughter was born with deformed feet.

All were among the 1,600 previously healthy Americans who served in the Gulf war and now believe they contracted a crippling but unidentified disease in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The symptoms of what has become known as Gulf War Syndrome are pains in the joints, breathlessness, headache, skin rash and memory loss, often accompanied by diarrhoea and coughing.

Explanations of why the desert veterans are ill include everything from the effect of using depleted uranium ammunition to inhaling smoke from the burning oilfields of Kuwait. The Pentagon is ruling nothing out, partly because its own credibility is low because of its prolonged denials - now abandoned - that the use of the Agent Orange defoliant in Vietnam damaged the health of its men.

Could the Iraqis, who frequently used gas against the Iranians and Kurds in the 1980s, have used gas shells or warheads against the allied forces in 1991? Joseph Cottrell, a chief warrant officer who served with a nuclear, biological and chemical defence team in the US marines, said this week that his detection vehicle twice picked up traces of lewisite gas.

This seems to confirm a report by a Czech military unit in Saudi Arabia that its sensors picked up traces of the nerve gas sarin and mustard gas during the first days of Desert Storm. Mr Cottrell says he reported the lewisite, but his report was mislaid. 'I fervently believe that no one purposely suppressed, destroyed or lost any of the chemical reports,' Mr Cottrell told a Senate Committee.

Intentional use of poison gas by the Iraqis against the allies looks unlikely because the US army says none was detected at the time. The symptoms of mustard and lewisite blistering agents should have been easily diagnosed.

None the less, the Gulf war veterans are deeply suspicious of a cover-up. The military command finds itself criticised both by right-wing Republicans, who want to be seen to support veterans, and liberal Democrats who suspect the Pentagon and all its works.

In the House of Representatives, for instance, a leading critic is Steve Buyer, a right- winger from Indiana, who says his health is ruined and he is allergic to anything green, such as trees or grass, since he served in the Gulf.

The difficulty in finding a single explanation is that sufferers were scattered through eastern Saudi Arabia. Many never went near a battlefield. If there is a single cause it is more likely to have been inflicted by the allies themselves. One candidate is an adverse reaction to the pills issued as antidotes against Iraqi gas attack.

The veterans themselves have a serious incentive to prove that their ailments are the result of military service because they can then claim compensation and free medical services.