Originally created 09/18/02

Relatives of gulf war veterans fight same battle against illness



In their living room one night in July, Aaron and Carolyn Dixon pulled out a box full of mementos from Desert Storm.

There were the love letters she had mailed him, letters he had mailed back, photos he had taken of the war carnage, cigarette packs and Coke cans with Arabic lettering. There were the welcome-home banners she had adorned the yard and house with when he returned, and the red-white-and-blue wreath she had hung on the front door.

The box had been sitting in a storage shed for years. Some of the papers were water-stained and wilted from age.

Mrs. Dixon talked about burning it all, despite the history, despite the memories.

She nodded at a deep scar in the curve of her left arm, discolored and covered with a skin graft.

"I've got enough memories," she said.

The scar is a reminder of Mrs. Dixon's bypass surgery in 1999. The surgery was the culmination of seven years of heart problems that began soon after her husband returned to Augusta with the rest of the 1148th Transportation Company. Like Mr. Dixon, 50, her joints ache.

Mrs. Dixon, 51, blames her afflictions on the Persian Gulf War and on the Army for sending her husband back to her without a clean bill of health. She is one of a number of people who feel this way, people who never set foot in the Saudi Arabian desert but who say they suffer from gulf war illnesses.

Several 1148th reservists and their families say ailments have been passed on to wives, girlfriends and children, suggesting that what soldiers brought back from Desert Storm could be contagious. Spouses report aching joints, sinus problems, rashes and skin lesions that developed after their spouses came home.

Acknowledging the problem, the Department of Veterans Affairs is wrapping up a four-year, $11 million study comparing more than 2,000 deployed and nondeployed veterans, in addition to more than 1,900 of their spouses and children. Han K. Kang, the director of the VA's Veterans Health Administration Environmental Service, is overseeing the research and said it is by far the most comprehensive study of gulf war vets and their families to date.

In another research program, spouses and children with symptoms possibly related to veterans' service in the gulf are being examined by the VA. As of June, 1,378 people had registered for the program, according to VA spokesman Jim Benson.

Still, only veterans can receive disability compensation. The VA is awaiting the results of Dr. Kang's research and has taken no official stance on whether family members could have contracted gulf war illnesses, according to a spokesman. The exams have been completed, but analyzing, compiling and publishing the data could take another nine months.

"The VA really can't say too much until we get the final results looked at and do a peer review and see how those things stack up against other studies as well," Mr. Benson said. "There may be, obviously, additional studies involved. This is not the end of it, I'm sure."

Something hidden

Greg Brown, who was a first lieutenant in the 1148th and is now a captain in the 878th Engineer Battalion, brought a rash on his legs back from Desert Storm. It showed up on his inner thighs about a month before he left Saudi Arabia. It itched fiercely, and he had it treated with ointments when he returned to Fort Gordon.

Since then, a similar rash has appeared on two of his sons, ages 8 and 9. They were both born after the war, to different mothers.

The 9-year-old's rash started when he was a baby, Capt. Brown said. He had sores and spots on most of his body, with scarring on his legs and arm.

On the 8-year-old, spots appeared on his chest and ankles when he was about 4 or 5, Capt. Brown said. They looked similar to the rashes Capt. Brown and the older son had, although he didn't have severe outbreaks or itching.

Capt. Brown's 12-year-old daughter, who was born before the war, does not have a skin disorder. He also has a 5-year-old son who appears to be fine.

Capt. Brown can't get compensation for his sons now, but he plans to have the oldest son examined at the VA for the gulf war spouses and children registry. He also plans to seek benefits for himself.

There is only one illness for which the U.S. government currently compensates relatives of vets. Since 1996, the VA has provided benefits to more than 800 children and adults who have spina bifida and whose parents were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Capt. Brown is worried that whatever is afflicting him and his sons could crop up again, perhaps more intensely, and perhaps spread to other siblings.

"It's scary as hell," he said. "What's really scary is that we don't know what's going to surface for them later in life. Here's a 9-, 8- and 5-year-old, just starting life. How do we know it's not hidden and it won't affect their families?"

Kenneth Holden, 51, an assistant platoon sergeant in the 1148th during the war and now the chief bailiff for the Richmond County Sheriff's Office, has had a claim pending for two years. His symptoms include fatigue, depression, anxiety attacks, sleeping troubles and aching joints.

He recently called the VA for an update on the claim and was told the board considering his case hadn't discussed it since April.

His troubles don't end there.

In 1992, his wife, Brenda, 44, began having migraine headaches. She also has developed problems with fatigue and her sinuses. Asked about other family members, Mr. Holden said his daughter, Nicole, 22, and son, Lee, 10, have sinus problems. Nicole also suffers headaches, he said.

"What am I going to do about it?" Mr. Holden said. "Right now the only person they're going to treat is me, and they're taking their time doing that."

Deep scars

In April 1992, a month before Mr. Dixon first noticed his joints aching, his wife had a dizzy spell in the living room of their Hephzibah home. The spells continued through the end of the year. Doctors ran test after test but could find nothing physically wrong, Mrs. Dixon said.

In 1993, after she felt excruciating pain in her right arm, her doctor found a blood clot in an artery near her heart. She had open heart surgery to remove the clot that June.

Her insurance premiums skyrocketed, putting a strain on the couple's finances, so she let her policy lapse.

In 1999, a clot was found again, this time in her left arm. She underwent bypass surgery.

The operations left her with scars on her chest, left leg and left arm. She also has a thick stack of bills.

"I'll never, in my lifetime, pay up," Mrs. Dixon said. "It just seems so ironic. I had only been in the hospital twice in my life, for two normal pregnancies."

In many ways, Mrs. Dixon is worse off than her husband, who also experiences fatigue, memory loss, sinus problems and trouble sleeping.

Garth Nicolson, an independent researcher in Huntington Beach, Calif., said it's not unheard of for a nonveteran spouse to suffer as much as, or more than, the veteran.

Dr. Nicolson says he found mycoplasma infections - primarily Mycoplasma fermentans - in roughly 45 percent of the veterans he tested and 43 percent of veterans' family members. Mycoplasma are tiny, parasitic bacteria that, unlike viruses, can breed outside living cells.

Told about the Dixon case, Dr. Nicolson said it's not unusual for such infections to attack the heart.

A lot of theories about gulf war illnesses can't explain how veterans' wives and children could be affected, but under Dr. Nicolson's theory, family members may have gotten sick by breathing the same air or through saliva or sexual contact.

He says the infections can be treated with a combination of antibiotics, immune system enhancement supplements, vitamins and diet changes.

Formerly the chairman of the department of tumor biology at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Dr. Nicholson began researching the illnesses after his stepdaughter returned from Desert Storm with strange symptoms.

Dr. Nicolson said he doesn't know how the bacteria got into gulf war soldiers. It could have come through the anthrax vaccine - mycoplasma infections are a common contaminant in vaccines, he said.

"We know it was there, but whether it was there in high enough amounts to make somebody sick or not, well, maybe if you throw everything else into it - like the chemicals, the stress, the multiple vaccines that immune-suppress - all of the sudden these things could take hold," Dr. Nicolson said. "But they're very slow-growing, so they wouldn't show up right away."

Credible data

Some refuse to buy into Dr. Nicolson's findings.

"They are deep into conspiracy theories," Michael Fumento, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Indianapolis, said of Dr. Nicolson and some other gulf war researchers. "I'm sure if you press them enough they'd tie crop circles into gulf war syndrome."

Mr. Fumento, an attorney who specializes in science and health issues and has written numerous articles on gulf war illnesses, contends that some researchers use study groups that are too small to come up with credible scientific data.

"Eventually one out of three of us is supposed to get cancer, and one out of four of us will die from it. They're going to get these things just like everybody else," Mr. Fumento said. "And if you look at a small enough group, you're going to find - because the numbers are small - you're going to find swings that you wouldn't find, say, in a group of 1 million people."

The vets and their families being studied by the VA were chosen at random from more than 20,000 people who responded to questionaires mailed out between 1995 and 1998. The questionnaire results showed increased rates of birth defects and adverse symptoms among veterans who served in the gulf.

Now Dr. Kang wants to see whether veterans' written complaints can be confirmed in the lab. At VA medical centers throughout the country, vets and their family members underwent days of exams, including respiratory, pulmonary, psychological, gynecological and blood and urine testing.

It's too early to say whether gulf war illnesses can be contagious, Dr. Kang said.

"That's all speculative. Some people suggest that the veteran may carry some sort of hazardous chemicals along with their clothing and whatever they brought back from the gulf, and then the spouse is being exposed because they handled, cleaned, whatever," he said. "Or it could be psychological, that families are affected by veterans' medical conditions. It could be many different theories."

During the gulf war, Martha Scott and her husband, Rudolph, practically lived in front of their television, watching the around-the-clock news coverage. Their only son, Doug Scott, was hauling fuel as a lieutenant and platoon leader in the 1148th.

Mrs. Scott remembers the air raids, the explosions and the fear of chemical warfare. Chemical exposure may be what caused her son to develop a brain tumor a few years after the war, she said.

"I thought maybe it was some of that stuff he breathed, where they were doing all that bombing, and some of the stuff they had to live around that caused that," Mrs. Scott said. "That was my theory."

Doug Scott died in October. Two other families of 1148th veterans say their loved ones were killed by something they brought back from the gulf.

THEN AND NOW

CIVIL WAR

Irritable heart

Symptoms: Shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain, headaches, diarrhea, dizziness, disturbed sleep

Causes: Infectious diseases, strenuous duties

WORLD WAR I, WORLD WAR II, KOREAN WAR

Effort syndrome

Symptoms: Shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain, headaches, diarrhea, fatigue, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, disturbed sleep

Cause: Psychological

VIETNAM WAR

Agent Orange exposure

Symptoms: Fatigue, headaches, muscle and joint pain, diarrhea, disturbed sleep, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating

Cause: Chemical exposure

Post-traumatic stress disorder (post-Vietnam syndrome)

Symptoms: Fatigue, shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain, headache, muscle and joint pain, diarrhea, disturbed sleep, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating

Cause: Psychological trauma

PERSIAN GULF WAR

Gulf war syndrome

Symptoms: Fatigue, headaches, muscle and joint pain, diarrhea, shortness of breath, chest pain, sleep disturbance, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness

Causes: Multiple

Source: American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine

WHERE TO CALL

If you are a Persian Gulf War veteran and believe you or someone in your family has been affected by gulf war illness, you can set up an examination at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers in Augusta by calling (706) 823-3999 or (800) 836-5561, Ext. 3999. The national help-line number is (800) PGW-VETS ((800) 749-8387).

For medical research information, log on to www.va.gov/gulfwar or www.GulfLINK.osd.mil/medsearch.

The National Gulf War Resource Center Inc., an international veterans advocacy group, can be reached at (800) 882-1316, Ext. 162.

Reach Mike Wynn at (706) 823-3218 or Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225.