01:09 AM CDT on Tuesday, June 29, 2004
By BYRON HARRIS / WFAA-TV
With the handover of authority Monday in Iraq, the second Gulf War is in a new stage.
However, tens of thousands of veterans from the last Gulf War have been living in limbo for a decade. They're sick, but nobody knows why - yet there now is a potential breakthrough on the illness that's come to be known as Gulf War Syndrome.
At the center of this breakthrough is a video taken south of Baghdad near a town called Khamisiyah in March 1991. The clip is scratchy and jumpy, but for thousands of sick veterans, it contains the most important pictures of the first Gulf War.
In the video, Army engineers blow up one of Saddam Hussein's ammunition dumps. Unknown to them, some of it contains the deadly nerve gas sarin. As the explosion clouds spread skyward, the plume of dust and nerve gas exposes 100,000 - perhaps hundreds of thousands -
of U.S. troops to the extremely toxic chemical agent.
During a recent hearing in Washington, an Army Major General admitted something the military has denied for years: that there could be a disease from serving in the Gulf, caused by exposure to sarin. It's the disease others call Gulf War Syndrome.
"Yes, there may be some soldiers from the Gulf War that were affected because of a low-level exposure to sarin," the Major General told a committee at a hearing on the matter.
"I think it is quite plausible, quite believable, that there is damage from low-level exposure to nerve agents, and that can be a basis of, in fact, multiple diseases and nerve dysfunction," said Dr. Jonathan Perlin of the Veterans Administration.
As troops moved across Iraq during the first Gulf War, bombing and demolition destroyed a total of four ammo dumps that contained sarin. The Department of Defense estimates that the plumes from those explosions rose hundreds of feet into the air, but new models from the General Accounting Office said the plumes may have gone much higher, and blown over troops throughout the southern theater of the war.
For years, epidemiologist Dr. Robert Haley of UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas has been alone in saying Gulf War Syndrome exists.
At the hearings in Washington, other scientists took his side. His research indicates that some people have an enzyme that protects them from nerve gas, while others do not.
Also, he said different people suffer different symptoms from low-level exposure.
"When this nerve cloud came over the troops and rained fallout and they were all exposed, (it was) absorbed through the skin through breathing and so forth," Haley said. "The ones who had high levels of this enzyme in their blood from birth just fought it off - it destroyed it so it didn't hurt them - but the ones who were born with low levels of paraoxonase, the nerve gas was able to go right into their blood."
During the first Gulf War, numerous nerve gas detection alarms went off in several places. As estimates of the height of the gas plume have grown, the Department of Defense has raised its estimate of the number of soldiers exposed from zero to 300 to 5,000 to 98,000, and now to 101,000.
Experts said that number is low.
"700,000 soldiers, including people in Kuwait, including civilian populations in Saudi Arabia, may have - repeat, may have - been exposed," said Keith Rhodes of the General Accounting Office.
"There is a tipping point now both in the science, and in the reason for taking action," said Jim Binns of the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illnesses.
Taking action will be expensive. Once the government admits veterans actually have a disease, it will have to compensate them, and that will cost money.
The government has already spent $240 million to determine whether Gulf War Syndrome is a disease. That's small consolation to the veterans who could have used that money for treatment.
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