The New Forgotten Vets

The Boston TAB, Jan. 24 – Jan. 30, 1995 Vol. 14 No. 21, 44 pagesGreater Boston’s Largest Circulation Subscription Newspapers

Delivered via U.S. Mail, Published weekly by TAB Community Newspapers Newton, MA 02164 – Two Sections

Gulf soldiers want answers from a bureaucracy that’s unable or unwilling to give them.

by Scott Blake, TAB Staff Writer

Photo by Winslow Martin
On a recent Friday night, Charles Sheehan-Miles could be found inside his South Boston apartment on D Street, between Burger King and the Teamsters Pub.

The narrow stairway to his third floor apartment, sprinkled with discarded mail, looked as if it had been given a fresh coat of gray paint to cover the old boards underneath.

Sheehan-Miles was seated at the kitchen table with a two-course meal before him: coffee and cigarettes. He looked a little older than his 23 years. But when he smiled it was possible to glimpse beyond the beard and the ponytail to a time not long ago when he was just a boy.

He once had dreams of becoming a U.S. Army officer, then maybe a college professor. But the Persian Gulf War changed that.

He still has dreams. Only now they are more basic, more urgent, if not more out of reach. He wants to feel good again.

Like thousands of other Gulf War veterans, he is desperately hoping that doctors will find a cure – or at least a better treatment – for whatever is inside of him, making him feel sick.

“I’m not interested in a check, I want them to fix me,” he said.

He sat with Veronica, his wife, whose experiences with her husband’s attempts to get more help from the military and the federal government have made her bitter and suspicious. The couple was joined by Kenny Stephens, another ailing Gulf War veteran from the neighborhood.

With pants rolled up to reveal his black Army boots and shirt sleeves rolled up to display a collage of tattoos running up his right arm then down his left arm, where a tiger and a snake are locked in mortal combat, Stephens apparently is comfortable with his battle-hardened persona. After all, his life was simpler when he was in the service.

“All I had to do was buy cigarettes, boot polish and razors,” he reasoned.

As their four cats milled around the bathroom, it became clear that Sheehan-Miles and Veronica were used to hosting meetings like this. Back in November, while starting an advocacy group called the Gulf War Veterans of Massachusetts, he invited a bunch of Gulf vets over to his place.

Only a few showed up that night. And Sheehan-Miles didn’t come away with a definitive plan for reaching his goals, one of which was to ensure that his Gulf War brethren receive prompt and complete medical evaluations and treatment from the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs, or VA, for their myriad mysterious illnesses.

The veterans call their maladies Persian Gulf Syndrome. But military and civilian health officials who have studied their cases maintain that no single illness exists among veterans, and some military doctors have questioned the wisdom of spending medical resources to find an illness that nobody has been able to diagnose.

Last week was the fourth anniversary of the start of the Gulf War. Even so, the lingering debates about the military and the political ramifications of the war are afterthoughts to Sheehan-Miles and Stephens.

They are more concerned about their Persian Gulf comrades.

According to the VA, of the 312,000 troops discharged after serving the Gulf Theater, 137,000 of them are VA outpatients and 8,000 are VA inpatients. An additional 2,300 have died.

Sheehan-Miles joined the Army as a 19-year-old from Georgia, partly because military service is a tradition in his family. His father served in Vietnam and his grandfather served in World War II.

In August 1990, he found himself in the Persian Gulf War shortly after completing basic training. As a member of the 24th Infantry Division, he was assigned to the crew of an M1A1 tank. His unit moved around Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

He recalls an encounter on March 2, 1991, just three weeks before he left the Persian Gulf. His battalion was ordered to intercept a group of Iraqi tanks trying to flee Kuwait.

The Iraqis were trying to escape the coalition forces on a road to Iraq that cut through some oil fields. As his battalion approached, Sheehan-Miles’ crew learned that shots had been fired and that U.S. helicopters were bombing the Iraqis, who were trapped from the front and the back.

“They sent my battalion down the center of the road, destroying everything,” he said. “At some point we were within two or three feet of these vehicles as they were burning and exploding. And, of course, the few Iraqi soldiers who stayed with their vehicles were shot out of hand,” he recalled, his voice dropping as he recalled the scene.

Eventually, his tank crew reached a point in the road where they could no longer advance. Then there was a blinding white flash on the road ahead. It was an M1A1 tank exploding. They quickly shut their tank’s hatch to avoid any fallout from the explosion.

But as Sheehan-Miles watched from one of the tank’s portholes, he noticed four U.S. soldiers who managed to escape from the tank alive. Without thinking, Sheehan-Miles and his sergeant climbed out of their tank and pulled the soldiers away from the burning wreckage. He received a medal for the effort.

He now believes the encounter exposed him to depleted uranium radiation from the exploding ammunition and burning tanks.

Photo by Winslow Martin

Since the war, Sheehan-Miles has studied reports from the U.S. General Accounting Office that found that the Army was not adequately prepared to deal with contamination from depleted uranium, or DU, which contains a uranium isotope used for nuclear reactor fuel and nuclear weapons. Because DU is extremely dense, it is used in armor-piercing rounds and in the armor of some U.S. M1A1 tanks.

One report found that at least several dozen U.S. soldiers were exposed to DU during the war.

In hi emerging role as an activist, Sheehan-Miles has studied many unclassified government reports about hazardous exposures of U.S. troops during the Gulf War.

His collection includes congressional reports citing evidence that U.S. troops were widely exposed to chemical and biological weapons during the war, despite assertions to the contrary by the U.S. Department of Defense, or DoD.

He has spoken out about Persian Gulf Syndrome at large conferences and small meetings. The symptoms range from strange rashes and chronic diarrhea to asthma and chronic fatigue, to name just a few.

He writes a newsletter informing Gulf War veterans about developments in legislation and medical treatment. He has about 50 members on his mailing list. Some of those vets have been stricken by debilitating illnesses. In some cases, their families are suffering from the symptoms.

In one of his latest efforts, Sheehan-Miles is asking Gulf War veterans to refrain from giving blood to avoid the chance of spreading ailments through the blood supply. Organizations such as the American Red Cross have accepted blood donations from Gulf War vets since the federal government lifted a ban on such donations last January.

Still, Sheehan-Miles, Stephens and others are concerned about the spread of leishmaniasis in the blood supplies of sick Gulf War veterans. The condition is transmitted by sand flies, causing skin lesions that commonly evolve into painful nonhealing ulcers. The disease cannot be detected from blood tests.

Sheehan-Miles still feels shortchanged by the military when he remembers the war. A shortage of supplies forced him and other soldiers to wear the same chemical protection suits for weeks, although the suits were deemed unuseful after being worn for 24 hours. The GAO found about 80 percent of U.S. forces were given the older model suits, which offer less protection against chemical agents, and for a shorter time, than the newer suits.

He remembers how some of their chemical protection masks didn’t fit and said they were inferior to those given to the British troops. The GAO found that almost all troops were given older style masks, which don’ fit as well as the military’s newer masks.

Stephen’s memories of the Gulf War are just a bleak. The 27-year-old said he joined the Army six years ago because he was bored with his job as a cook. He wanted to do something else with his life. So, from December 1990 to May 1991, he served in the Persian Gulf.

He was assigned to an Army unit charged with destroying Iraqi radar systems, among other duties. Stephens remembers how the Army’s chemical agent detection alarms, called the M8A1, regularly sounded the alert.

“A lot of the time the alarms went off and we were told not to worry about it,” he recalled. “I always smelled a weird smell in the air. And whenever I questions [my commanders] about it, they said, ‘Nothing to worry about.’”

To make matters worse, the M8A1 alarms were not sensitive enough to detect sustained low levels of chemical agents and to monitor troops for contamination, according to a congressional report released last year. For example, the minimum level of Sarin, a chemical agent, required to activate the alarm exceeds the level at which it is hazardous by a thousand-fold, according to the report.

After Stephens’ battalion pulled out of Iraq, where the chemical alarms sounded regularly, a number of soldiers were stricken with chronic diarrhea.

“The first night back, just about the whole battalion was sick,” he recalled. “There were lines and lines and lines of people outside the toilets. I got it real bad.

“The first day I thought it was kind of funny. But [my attitude] changed after I lost 15 pounds in a week. I was so weak I could barely make it to the toilets and I’d get halfway back to my tent and have to turn around and go back to the toilets. It was just awful.”

And there are other parts of the war that left Stephens and Sheehan-Miles wondering how it might be affecting their health. They, along with thousands of U.S. troops, were given pyridostigmine bromide pills in a military effort to protect them against exposure to nerve agents in the air. Since the war, the DoD has done four retrospective surveys that found the troops had several bad reactions from taking the pill, including headaches, diarrhea, abdominal cramps and stomach problems.

In December, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs issued a report that found that the DoD did not have proof that pyridostigmine was safe for use as an antidote when troops were sent to the Persian Gulf again last year.

“They have us the pills without telling us about the side effects, and without telling us that it was an experimental use,” Sheehan-Miles said.

Former Senator Donald Riegle of Michigan, who released several congressional reports about Persian Gulf Syndrome before losing his seat in the November election, attributed many of the illnesses described by Gulf War veterans to three possible causes: direct attack by Iraqi forces with chemical or mixed chemical and biological agents, downwind exposure to fallout from the coalition bombings of Iraqi chemical, biological and nuclear facilities and adverse reactions from nerve agent pretreatment pills and other inoculations.

Stephens’ stomach problems haven’t ended since he returned from the Gulf. And he suffers from joint pain, especially in his knees. He said the pain gets worse when he stays on his feet too long. Both ailments – joint pain and stomach problems – are common among Gulf War vets.

Stephens lost his job as a cook at a local hotel not too long ago because the pain in his knees made it impossible for him to keep up with the pace in the kitchen, he said. Although he can’t work on his feet, he’s using his military benefits to help pay for tuition at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, where he’s studying theater.

But what mostly troubles Stephens is his anti-social behavior since he left the service.

“I was having trouble [holding down] jobs,” when I got back, he admitted. “My roommate has known me for a while and he tells me that since I got out of the service, I’m basically an asshole now. And I don’t like talking to people no more.

“People who know me see the difference,” he added. “Whatever I do, I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

The VA and DoD are beginning to study whether exposure to environmental hazards in the Gulf have resulted in reproductive problems among vets and birth defects among their newborns. The GAO, meanwhile, found that the VA and DoD registries “have methodological problems in terms of coverage and do not ascertain certain key indicators, such as rates of infertility and miscarriage and other forms of reproductive dysfunction.”

And like Stephens, Sheehan-Miles has noticed a change in his behavior since he left the service. Both men attribute the condition to post-traumatic stress disorder rather than exposure to environmental hazards during the war.

“I don’t deal well with people anymore,” Sheehan-Miles admitted. “It makes things difficult sometimes.”

Gulf War veterans throughout the country have complained that they are not taken seriously when they report their symptoms to the VA. Stephens and Sheehan-Miles have been similarly frustrated in their dealings with the VA Hospital in Jamaica Plain.

Stephens went to the VA for help with his sullen moods.

“I tried to talk to a doctor,” he recalled. “She wanted to talk about my childhood and she told me that I needed to get laid. I got frustrated after about three sessions. I guess I’ve got an awful lot of unresolved stress from” the war.

He also sought treatment for his physical ailments. But he said the staff is suspicious of Gulf veterans who say they are sick. He also said he was discouraged by what he described as sloppy medical care at the hospital.

“I’ve been really frustrated by the VA. I don’t like going somewhere where I feel like I should own them something for letting them see me,” he said. “I’m kind of old-fashioned. I believe that the hospitals and the services are there for the patient.

“Just about every time I go to the VA, I end up getting pissed off and walking out before anything can be done,” he said.

“Sheehan-Mile has also been frustrated with his dealings with the VA. He filed a complaint against one doctor, claiming the doctor tried to skip parts of a standard medical survey for Sheehan-Miles’ disability claim. Moreover, Sheehan-Miles said it took four months to make an appointment with a VA dermatologist to examine a growth on his back. The growth turned out to be skin cancer. The doctors caught it at an early stage and removed it.

Meanwhile, the doctors have prescribed several medications for his other symptoms, including Motrin and an antibiotic. But he said the drugs haven’t done much good and the doctors seem puzzled by his conditions.

“The symptoms really haven’t changed. I’ve gotten a little more used to them by now,” he said. “The VA certainly hasn’t changed.

“I’ve met an individual doctor who’s really good there. If I wasn’t seeing her – I don’t know – I probably would have gone there and bombed the place or something. It really is that bad sometimes.”

The VA realized that Gulf War veterans are frustrated, but the agency is trying to provide the best treatment it can until more research is done, said Holly Hickson, a VA spokeswoman.

“The Gulf vets are frustrated. They want to know what’s strong with them. But there’s no clear answer yet,” Hickson said. “It’s hard to be sick and now know why. There’s a lot of anger. We try to make sure our staff is sensitive to that.

“We’ve done a tremendous amount of work to figure out what’s going on,” she said. “We’re caught in the middle because the DoD has come out and said they weren’t exposed to anything.”

Dr. Victor Gordon, a staff physician at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Manchester, N.H., agrees with the vets that there has been a lack of effective treatment for Persian Gulf veterans.

Gordon, the VA’s only staff physician in New Hampshire, has examined 376 Gulf War veterans who say they have Persian Gulf syndrome.

“After seeing 376 people, I’m still puzzled,” the doctor said. “We can’t offer any specific treatment because we don’t know how the illnesses were caused.

“If we know how the problems were caused, we could give them a direct treatment,” he said. “If a headache is one of their symptoms, I give them the standard treatment for a headache.

“But I don’t think this is the right treatment. Their symptoms are more resistant to regular treatments. It tells me that whatever is causing their symptoms, it must still be in the body,” he added.

The VA, meanwhile, is starting research on environmental hazards in the Gulf War. The VA Hospital in Jamaica Plain has been selected as one of three sites in the country for such research.

The project will study the effects of oil fire smoke on veterans, as well as changed in their lung, nervous and immune systems, said Dr. Susan Proctor, assistant director of the VA’s Environmental Hazards Research Center in Boston.

However, the project does not include a study of the effect of chemical agents or biological weapons on U.S. troops. And Proctor and other researchers are waiting for data from the DoD that would provide information about the location of troops, weapons and environmental hazards during the war.

Another problem could be a shortage of funding. Proctor said there’s enough money to begin the research. But there may not be enough to follow through on it.

Despite such setbacks, Sheehan-Miles said he and other sick Gulf War veterans are making progress.

“The new bill was a good start,” he said, referring to the Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 1994. President Clinton signed the bill into law in November. It promises to provide relief to veterans discouraged by the red tape holding up their disability claims.

The law includes steps to break the growing backlog of requests for disability claims and to provide for a variety of veterans’ needs in health care and job training.

And Sheehan-Miles has had more success lately in seeking treatment at the VA.

“It’s actually going much better now,” he said. “The improvement I’ve seen in the last few months has been really impressive.”

But there are some snags.

A report, released earlier this month by a panel formed by the Institute of Medicine at the request of Congress, concluded that the government needs to overhaul the way it is doing research on Persian Gulf Syndrome.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Gulf War veterans who say they are suffering from the syndrome have joined a class-action lawsuit against 11 American companies that allegedly supplied Iraq with chemical and biological weapons before the war.

Sheehan-Miles has a chance to join the lawsuit. But he has not yet joined because he feels the veterans may not get a big enough settlement from the case because many may have illnesses that won’t surface for years. He’s also considering organizing his own lawsuit someday against the federal government. He feels the government is to blame since the Department of Commerce approved the chemical shipments to Iraq.

During a 1993 congressional hearing on Gulf War illnesses, Sen. John Rockefeller of West Virginia, then chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, compared the situation to the Vietnam War, where troops were exposed to Agent Orange.

“Out Vietnam veterans spent decades trying to convince a reluctant government that their serious illnesses were related to their exposure to Agent Orange,” Rockefeller said.

“I assure you that I do not intend to sit back and watch the Pentagon and VA repeat the many errors the government made, in the handling of the Agent Orange crisis, in this new crisis.”

For Stephens, such assurances have little meaning. When he thinks about the future, he doesn’t talk about his ailments. Instead, he talks about becoming a playwright after finishing college.

“Hopefully,” he said, tongue in cheek, “by then I’ll have an answer to how to pay back the school loans. And I can write my plays and go to opening night and live like all the other rich playwrights, if there is such an animal.”

Sheehan-Miles has found that writing can be therapeutic. So he’s working on a book about the Gulf War.

“It’s a novel about readjusting after the war,” he said, sounding as if his mind may succeed where his body has not.

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