At least 62 Georgia gulf war veterans are plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging that 81 American and international companies sold chemical and biological agents to Iraq for use in the Persian Gulf War.
These companies knew that Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons in the past and were "knowing co-conspirators in the development and ultimate use of these virulent compounds and reagents," according to the lawsuit filed in Brazoria County, Texas.
The suit seeks $1 billion in damages and compensation for about 4,000 veterans suffering from symptoms of the mysterious gulf war illness, characterized by joint and muscle aches, fatigue, neurological problems, chronic headaches, skin rashes and respiratory and intestinal problems.
Attorneys for the veterans are pushing the court to accept the case as a class action suit. If that happens, all sick gulf war veterans would be entitled to damages and compensation for future medical bills.
"Not only do we want the compensation for the veterans and their families, but we do want to send a message," said Gary Pitts, an attorney representing the veterans.
Veteran Barbara Curtis of Evans said she joined the lawsuit for disclosure, more than money.
"There's a large number of manufacturers here in the states that are making these chemicals and providing them to nations that are our known enemies," said Ms. Curtis, who was a critical care nurse with the 382nd Army Reserve Field Hospital, based in Augusta. "To me, that's treason against the United States and against American soldiers."
Since returning from the gulf, Ms. Curtis has been diagnosed with primary pulmonary hypertension and nerve damage to her right side, she said. At first, doctors believed she had multiple sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease.
But Ms. Curtis believes chemicals in the gulf and the inoculations she received before deploying are to blame.
"I ran, I walked, I hiked, I exercised every day. I worked 12- to 16-hour days all the time. I was extremely active," the 46-year-old grandmother said. "Now some days, I have to have somebody help me out of bed to get dressed."
Don Galletly, a vice president at Dresser Industries in Dallas, one of the defendants, said the charges against his company are "absolutely groundless."
"We don't make chemicals of any sort," he said. "I think that what this is referring to is a fertilizer plant in Iraq that was never completed.
"We are not in the chemical business. We manufacture equipment for oil services and oil and gas processing."
Paul Sullivan, a Georgia veterans activist and spokesman for the National Gulf War Resources Center said he expects that like the government, most companies will deny any culpability for gulf war illness.
"Of course they're going to say that (the lawsuit is groundless) because they want to delay and deny any liability," Mr. Sullivan said. "To say that they are not responsible is lawyer-speak, trying to wriggle their way out of responsibility."
The lawsuit was filed two years ago, but recent admissions by the Pentagon that troops were exposed to chemicals in the Persian Gulf have reignited interest, Mr. Pitts said.
"All these admissions recently have helped stir the pot," said Mr. Pitts, who believes the lawsuit could eclipse the O.J. Simpson case as the "trial of the century."
Attorneys are now wrangling over jurisdictional issues - whether the case should be tried in federal or state court, and it could be another two to three years before the case actually goes to trial, Mr. Pitts said.
Gulf war veterans who would like to be a part of the lawsuit can call Mr. Pitts at (800) 269-6345.
To become a plaintiff in the suit, a veteran must complete a lengthy questionnaire, which is reviewed by Mr. Pitts to determine if that veteran's symptoms fit within the commonly accepted definition of gulf war illness.