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Syndrome still a problem for Gulf veterans

By Vincent Z. Whaley
Johnson City Press Staff Writer

(Published Sunday, Oct. 1, 2000)

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Of the more than 697,000 military service members who served in the Persian Gulf War 10 years ago, thousands claim they still suffer from ailments that have been dubbed Gulf War Syndrome.

Gray resident Gary Ferguson, 53, who served as a staff sergeant in the local Army National Guard 176th Maintenance Battalion, said he has experienced the majority of symptoms associated with the syndrome.

"I have had night sweats, joint ache, memory loss, muscle cramps, stomach cramps, tennis elbow and runner's knee," he said. "Most of the problems I've had, the (Department of Veterans Affairs) has said they were all related to combat stress. I couldn't play tennis, because it hurt my arms to hit the ball. I had no energy. Walking was an experience. I just had to sit down and rest."

According to data compiled by the VA, the 10 most frequent complaints among 52,835 veterans listed on the Persian Gulf Veterans Health Registry in 1997 were fatigue, skin rash, headache, muscle and joint pain, loss of memory and other general symptoms, shortness of breath, sleep disturbances, diarrhea and other GI symptoms, other symptoms involving skin and integumentary tissue and chest pain.

"Although his symptoms are "not as bad as they used to be," Ferguson said he stopped seeking help from the VA a few years ago due to "frustration with the system."

"The VA has not done a thing except put me off and put off," he said. "I went to several doctors when I came back home from the war and continued to do so for two years after the war. They even found something in my blood that was a mystery to the doctors. After that, the doctors became secretive and said they couldn't talk to me about my problems anymore. So I stopped going because it wasn't doing me any good."

Aside from inhaling fumes and smoke from numerous burning Kuwaiti oil wells, Ferguson believes his symptoms are the result of taking pyridostigmine bromide — an experimental drug for pretreatment of nerve gas exposure — and other chemical vaccines.

"During the day, it was a total blackout," he said. "You were breathing the oil and wearing the oil. You couldn't take a bath. You couldn't clean up. And when you tried to eat, it was on your food, because the oil was like rain. And we were guinea pigs on the anthrax pill. Some troops got nauseated and some of them got a buzz off of it, because it was an adrenaline rush to speed up the metabolism in the body.

"I think this all goes back to Agent Orange and the Vietnam War. The VA just keeps putting the vets off. The longer they can put it off, the longer vets can keep dying on them."

Locally that isn't the case, according to Phyllis Deel, a nurse practitioner and Gulf War coordinator at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Mountain Home.

"We are trying to make everything accessible for our veterans, and we are very concerned about their health," she said. "The major concern of all local veterans is overall health. They want to be healthy, and we want them to be as healthy as they can be. That's why we offer many services to our veterans, especially to those who served in the Gulf War."

Deel said approximately 1,367 local Gulf War veterans have sought help and received treatment at the Mountain Home facility. Of that number, 772 have completed physical examinations to be listed on the VA's Persian Gulf Veterans Health Registry.

"The registry program offers a free, complete physical examination with basic laboratory studies to every Gulf War veteran, even if they are not suffering from any symptoms," she said. "A complete medical history is also performed and documented in the veteran's medical record.

"Of the 772 local veterans, 30 have gone on to complete Phase II applications, in which we send them to a VA medical center in Washington to undergo further examinations and laboratory tests to help better diagnose their problems."

While the Pentagon and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also spent millions searching for causes of Gulf War Syndrome, Deel said she expects research will be conducted for many years to come.

"A good majority of Gulf War veterans also served in Vietnam, and like the Vietnam War, I feel as if it will take scientists many years to resolve those health issues and rule everything out," she said.

"Until then, we at the Medical Center at Mountain Home will do everything in our power to help these veterans."

Story © 2000-2004 Vincent Z. Whaley and the Johnson City Press, 204 W. Main St., Johnson City, Tennessee 37605, 423.929.3111.
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47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division
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