Ailing veterans blame their MS on Gulf War
Their mission now is to spread the word about other illnesses
By Mike Barber
On a morning at Westlake Center, they were a couple of wives and moms spending quality time downtown, meeting at a coffee shop to catch up on their lives.
Yet Julie Mock, 38, of Woodinville and Elizabeth Burris, 50, of Tacoma are also sisters-in-arms, exposed accidentally to deadly nerve gases. As veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, they are among perhaps 450 men and women across the country who blame their multiple sclerosis on that war’s poisonous stew.
Though overshadowed by today’s costlier war in Iraq, Persian Gulf War veterans are still taking casualties. Of the 700,000 U.S. troops who served there in 1991, a disproportionate number experienced serious neurological disorders. More than 65 percent have sought health care for service-related ailments. Nearly 200,000 are receiving disability compensation — twice the rate as vets from World War II, Korea and Vietnam…
The federal government this summer began notifying about 300,000 veterans of the latest neurological problem linked to service in Iraq in 1991 — brain cancer. It was the third time the government had warned veterans about neurological problems.
Brain-cancer death joined amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and fibromyalgia among the attacks upon nervous systems stemming from the Gulf War.
In addition, Mock says, “The rate of multiple sclerosis is rising among Gulf War veterans. … Our population of veterans is becoming increasingly ill and, after years of pushing onward, are finding ourselves too ill to work.”
Mock and Burris qualified for service-connected disabilities with multiple sclerosis because they documented their symptoms within a seven-year window after their honorable discharges. They are concerned about many more veterans, however, who fall outside that window. “There is a higher percentage of male Gulf War veterans than women, and men don’t typically go to the doctor as quickly as women,” Mock says.
The two credit having their disease declared service-related with being near a Veterans Affairs “Center of Excellence” for multiple sclerosis in Seattle, one of three in the nation. The other two are in Portland and Baltimore.
What’s needed, they say, is a serious outreach effort and review of cases to encompass veterans who live elsewhere.
“Some of our folks are so broken down that they can’t think straight for themselves. If there are no family members to help, they get lost in the system,” Burris says.
A former Army corporal during Desert Storm, Mock today is president of a lobby and information clearinghouse, National Gulf War Veterans Resource Center Inc.
Burris, a former Army captain, is a co-founder with Ed Butler of Missouri, a former Army nurse who now has multiple sclerosis, of the MSVets Web site on Yahoogroups.com.
“I would like to see an honest records-review of all those cases, and to look again at fibromyalgia cases with neurological examinations,” says Burris. A catchall condition of musculoskeletal pain and fatigue, fibromyalgia is suspected of masking cases of multiple sclerosis.
MS involves an attack upon the central nervous system. Myelin, the protective covering that allows nerves to do their job, is destroyed. In its place is left scar tissue called sclerosis that results in a diverse range of painful, debilitating and baffling symptoms.
To fight chronic fatigue from their conditions, MS sufferers take Ritalin, a stimulant.
The problem is determining when MS stems from environmental or other sources.
Dr. Steven Hunt, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Deployment Health Clinic in Seattle and at American Lake in Pierce County, is sympathetic to the veterans’ needs but also cautions that it is difficult for researchers to establish relationships between diseases and exposure with absolute certainty.
“Veterans in combat who were exposed to any kind of environmental (toxins) need to be followed long term, not just when they come back for a few years,” he says.
For Mock, the statistical evidence is plain and personal. Three of 36 soldiers who served in detachments nearby in Iraq have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and one is ill with an undiagnosed condition. Nationally, one in every 700 people has the disease.
“The (chemical) alarms went off but no one did anything. We just stood there in shirtsleeves. You couldn’t see the plume. It was just a mist,” Mock recalls of the day she was exposed.
In August, the American Journal of Public Health published a study on thousands of troops who were exposed to the nerve agents sarin and cyclosarin in March 1991 when U.S. forces blew up two Iraqi ammunition caches at Al Khamisiyah.
The study, commissioned by the Pentagon and conducted by the Institute of Medicine, concluded that troops exposed to the plumes from the burning caches were twice as likely to die from brain cancer as those who were not exposed.
The military has been contacting 300,000 veterans exposed in the hazard area, including soldiers who served 14 years ago with several medical units from Fort Lewis.
Mock and Burris never served together, either overseas or in the Fort Lewis medical units. They became acquainted two years ago when Burris invited Mock to a Seattle conference for Gulf War veterans. “I was shocked to find so many people feeling like I felt, using canes. Just a roomful of what seemed like aged people,” Mock said.
Both women were energetic before and during their service. After 1991, their strength waned. Joints seemed to disintegrate, becoming rheumatic and inflamed. There were night sweats, red-hot tingling sensations, headaches that lasted a week and sensitivity to heat and chemicals.
In Iraq, Burris had commanded a truck company refueling U.S. Marines on missions that exposed her to toxins in and out of the Al Khamisiyah plume.
Her list of environmental suspects includes not only the cloud but also disease-carrying sand fleas, mandatory inoculations against chemical and biological weapons and burning oil wells with choking smoke that blocked the sun for days.
Depleted uranium dust, harmful when inhaled or ingested, or even the phosgene poison gas that can be given off by Teflon in armor burning at high temperatures, are also on her list. When she returned home from Iraq, Burris says, “I just knew something was wrong, an inner voice thing.”
Her husband, Clarence, a former Navy officer, said she seemed completely changed. “I believe I was totally poisoned. I was horribly chemically sensitive. I couldn’t go into stores with a lot of plastics or new buildings. I would feel horribly sick,” she says.
Mock, meanwhile, was an Army dental hygienist serving 30 miles from Iraq’s southern border. She never saw the burning oil wells nor was she near depleted uranium. Her unit, however, was within the Al Khasimiyah plume.
“A lot of us began having rashes when we were still in Iraq,” recalls Mock.
The U.S. military at first did not believe the destroyed Iraqi munitions caches contained chemical weapons. United Nations weapons inspectors later found sarin was in Iraqi rockets there.
Mock, who left the Army in December 1991, attributed spontaneous rashes to the harsh desert environment until her hair began to fall out in clumps. Her stamina over the next three years steadily decreased. Limbs went numb. On occasion, Mock wears a leg brace when MS causes her foot to drop. Her need to rest, while also trying to be a mom, “was simply debilitating,” she says.
“It’s amazing the impact this has had on my life,” Mock says. “It altered my future. Our family used to do things like hike together. Now I lag behind everyone. My older son remembers when I could do those things. Now he’s angry.”
After serving in the Army off and on since 1973, Burris left to become an occupational therapist in 1995. Fatigue cut short her career. Burris now works a few hours occasionally to keep her license current. She also keeps active by sewing quilts for wounded soldiers from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While harboring strength to help rear a family, Mock channels her fury into a force within the Gulf War veterans resource center, the Paralyzed Veterans of America and other efforts.
“It’s anger that keeps me going,” she says. “I’ve got to do something constructive with it. Nobody is standing up for us.”
· For a list of military units considered to have been exposed to the Al Khamisiyah sarin plume in 1991, which includes several medical groups that were from Fort Lewis, see http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Oct1996/n10261996_9610266.html.
· For information about the recent Institute of Medicine study of brain cancer deaths in Gulf War veterans and help with health issues, see www.deploymentlink.osd.mil/news/jul05/news_20050726_001.shtml.