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Did the American bombing of Iraq's chemical and biological manufacturing facilities and storage depots inadvertently release germs, gases, or other toxic materials, leading to low-level exposure that may have had more damaging effects than previously known? Did the vaccines and medications provided to soldiers to help them survive a nerve gas or anthrax attack reduce resistance to low-level exposure to those very agents? Were GIs contaminated by fallout from the widespread American use against the
Iraqis--for the first time in warfare--of antitank shells and bombs made from depleted uranium, a radioactive heavy metal that burns on contact?
The medical mystery behind Gulf War syndrome is a complex epidemiological maze that will take years to fully unravel, if ever. But a sick soldier or sailor is sick, whether due to stress or to some obscure illness that defies immediate diagnosis. Why did the system fail the Gulf War veterans?
Did national heroes such as Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell, who were known during their careers for taking care of their troops, have an obligation to speak out on behalf of the veterans--as many sick GIs believe--and demand that America's military hospitals stop turning them away?
The unsettling fact is that the Gulf War was far more costly to the United
States than the Pentagon and its former leaders are willing to acknowledge. Well over one hundred thousand Gulf War veterans have registered thus far for physical examinations at Pentagon and VA clinics,
with nearly 90 percent reporting some symptoms. Those men and women are friendly-fire casualties just as surely as if they had been fired upon by their fellow soldiers. The military's inevitable dilemma is profound: Can it protect our soldiers and sailors in future wars if it was unable to do so in the Gulf War?
American soldiers were spared from Iraqi bullets and artillery shells in the Gulf War, but not from toxic gases, mysterious viruses, and unknown disease. For all of their brave talk about future warfare, the men who run
America's military have been unwilling--perhaps even unable--to learn the real lessons of the Gulf War.
Colin Powell, for one, professes no second thoughts about his role in the
Gulf War. "We did everything we could to try to protect our troops," he said in an interview for this book. "We had a lot of folks running their mouths [before the war] and saying twenty thousand will be killed. Well,
less than five hundred were killed"--in the war and as noncombatants.
"It's a remarkable achievement." Asked about the veterans suffering in the aftermath of the war, Powell said, "We are still not sure if there is a
Gulf War syndrome. You can scream and shout about it, but there is no answer." Powell told me that he agrees that the United States has an obligation to take care of its ailing veterans, no matter what the cause of their illness, but added that his responsibilities ended upon his retirement from the army in the fall of 1993. "If there are still some veterans who say I should have done more or said more," Powell said, "my answer is, I wasn't in the government."