It was only a few days before Christmas, a clear, sunny Sunday afternoon in 1993, and Diane Hopkins decided it was time to do some holiday shopping.
Mrs. Hopkins jumped in her car and began the 14-mile trip from her home in Midway, Ga., to Savannah Mall. She was still driving an hour later.
"When I realized where I was, I was like 50 miles from Savannah Mall," she recalled. "I didn't realize what was going on. It was like my mind drew a blank, and I just followed the road."
Concentration problems are among several that have made life tough for the former sergeant in the 1148th Transportation Company. Mrs. Hopkins, 45, experiences numbness on her right side, has joint aches, fatigues easily, frequently gets bad headaches and says her legs often swell so badly that it's hard to walk.
She has applied to the Department of Veterans Affairs for disability compensation, but her original request and three subsequent appeals were turned down. She stopped going to the VA because doctors wanted to send her to a psychiatrist.
"They wanted to make you think it was a mind thing," Mrs. Hopkins said.
Her feelings about how the VA has treated her and other veterans run deep. Mrs. Hopkins and groups that represent Persian Gulf War veterans say the federal agency is more concerned about the government's bottom line than those people who served their country.
"I think some of the ones who have died, if they had gotten the right treatment, they would still be here now, if they had gotten someone who cared," Mrs. Hopkins said. "I don't know what's the point of having a VA.
"We were there fighting for our country. We should have been top priority, but it hasn't been that way."
Symptoms emerge The Persian Gulf War ended after 43 days of bombing and fighting. Two months later, members of Augusta's 1148th Transportation Company were sent home, back to their families and back to their working-class lives.
During the next few years, strange things started happening to their bodies and their minds.
One of the more severe cases among members of the unit is that of Gwendolyn Paradise, 52, whose long list of problems started six months after she returned. They include high blood pressure, difficulty concentrating, achy joints, strange bumps on her head, memory loss and sinus stoppage that causes severe headaches and pain behind her eyes.
Last year, she said, she was told by a doctor at Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon that none of her problems are related to the gulf war.
"Before I went over there, I had no medical problems. My medical file was just a few sheets," said Sgt. Paradise, who is still in the National Guard. "Now I have two files. One is about 2 inches thick. The other one is about an inch to 2 inches thick."
In the beginning, the federal government blamed stress for the afflictions of the Persian Gulf War's veterans. It was years before officials acknowledged something was physically wrong with them.
Studies have found a variety of symptoms among gulf veterans, and the VA is authorized by Congress to pay compensation for 13 of them. But the studies have yet to determine a single cause for the illnesses, which is why the VA does not have a category called "gulf war syndrome."
The Augusta Chronicle contacted 102 members from the 1148th who have reported health problems. One-third have filed for disability. Nineteen out of 25 claims have been processed, and 10 have been approved.
Most of the veterans, though, haven't applied. Some said that, even though they have symptoms that they link to their gulf war service, they believe that many veterans are simply trying to beat the government out of benefits checks, and it would be wrong to take part.
Many of the 1148th's members were in their 30s, 40s and 50s when they served in Desert Storm. Aching joints, fatigue, memory loss and sleeping troubles are all part of the aging process, some said.
"I'm 62 years old. I'm going to have some aches and pains," William "Mac" McKinney said.
Proving it Since 1994, the government has acknowledged the health problems of gulf war veterans. That year, Congress passed legislation giving the VA authority to provide service-connected compensation to gulf war veterans with disabilities resulting from undiagnosed illnesses.
Congress expanded the law this year to include payments to veterans suffering from medically unexplained, chronic, multisymptom illnesses characterized by a cluster of signs, such as irritable bowel and chronic fatigue syndrome.
However, the legislation stops short of giving blanket compensation for these health problems and requires the veteran to prove that an undiagnosed illness resulted from gulf war duty.
If the government were to grant blanket compensation for undiagnosed illnesses, the cost would be staggering. Though the government has not released hard data, experts and veterans groups estimate that at least 100,000 veterans have been afflicted by gulf war-related ailments. Based on the VA's lowest monthly rate of compensation ($103 for 10 percent disability without dependents), the payout to these veterans would be more than $120 million annually.
On the high end, a veteran who is 100 percent disabled with a spouse, two parents and a child receives $2,576 a month from the VA. That amount increases slightly, depending on the number of children older and younger than 18.
"If they right now service-connected all gulf war veterans and paid them what they are due in compensation and care, it would bankrupt the VA," said Stephen Robinson, the executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center. "That's why they have the system where you have to prove that you had an exposure."
So far, 11,537 of the nearly 700,000 gulf war veterans have filed claims for undiagnosed illnesses. Of those, only 27 percent have been approved, the latest VA data shows.
Jim Benson, a VA spokesman in Washington, said the system serves both veterans and taxpayers. He said the application process allows the VA to weed out false claims, saving taxpayers money, and also helps the agency determine whether a veteran is being shortchanged.
"The process is designed to make sure that the veteran gets all the benefits that he's entitled to," Mr. Benson said. "At the same time, we want to make sure we're safeguarding taxpayers' dollars. For every dollar we spend on someone who doesn't deserve it, that's one less dollar spent on someone who does."
Edwin Deas, 36, a sergeant in the 1148th during Desert Storm, has been out of work since 1997. A truck driver by trade, Mr. Deas said he is unable to sit for long periods of time because of chronic, excruciating pain in his chest and back, which started in the mid-1990s, often forcing him to pull his rig to the side of the road. A lot of activity makes the pain just as bad, he said.
"I could work, but I couldn't do anything that would make enough money," said Mr. Deas, who now lives in Oldsmar, Fla., near Tampa. "I could work at McDonald's, but it wouldn't be enough to support my family."
For the past six years, Mr. Deas has been battling the government for full compensation. He filed a claim with the VA in 1996 and was turned down. He has since filed three appeals, the last of which is pending. He managed to get 10 percent disability for migraine headaches and 10 percent for a knee strain he experienced when he hit his leg on the steering column of a rig during the war. It adds up to a $188 check each month.
Mr. Deas has had better luck with the Social Security Administration. After being turned down for disability based on the chest and back pain, headaches and a hand tremor, he hired an attorney and took his case to an administrative law judge, who reversed the decision. Now Mr. Deas gets $1,500 a month in Social Security.
"With the Social Security, and my wife working, it's enough to get by," he said.
Getting rejected Mrs. Hopkins says she noticed a change in herself about a year after returning from the gulf. Once an outgoing person who liked to visit friends and go to movies, Mrs. Hopkins says she barely has enough energy to make it through work each day at ITW in Richmond Hill, Ga., where she assembles food slicers. Some days she passes up eating, barely able to stand the aroma of certain foods.
Her husband of seven years has divorced her.
"It seemed like I closed the door on everything," Mrs. Hopkins said. "Before, we used to make plans to do a lot of things. After I came back, all I wanted to do is come home after a day's work, if you made it through the day, and not do anything."
She last applied to the VA for disability in December 2000 and keeps the rejection letters as reminders of her treatment by the federal agency. Mrs. Hopkins, who spent 21 years in the National Guard, said she won't apply again.
"We will never get what's coming to us," she said. "It's very sad."
The military has linked only one disease - amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease - to Desert Shield and Desert Storm service.
"ALS has a defined set of symptoms," said Mr. Benson, the VA spokesman. "Some of the other things just don't have that collection of things that can be quantified."
How the VA categorizes gulf war illnesses doesn't just leave the veterans uncompensated.
While Carolyn Dixon's husband, Aaron, was hauling fuel for the 1148th on the other side of the world, she played the part of the patriotic Army wife in Augusta - helping organize a support group for military families, giving rah-rah interviews to TV reporters, and mailing box loads of letters and care packages to her husband.
"As far as I'm concerned, I was there, too," Mrs. Dixon said. "I wasn't there physically, but mentally I was there."
She noticed her husband had changed the day she drove him home from Fort Gordon, still dressed in his desert fatigues.
Within a year, something would change about her, too.
Reach Mike Wynn at (706) 823-3218 or Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225.