Air date: January 20, 1998
The Last Battle of the Gulf War
Written, produced and directed by Jon Palfreman
1st VETERAN: [at hearing] Are you going to allow us to die slowly
of some unknown disease? We need - as a nation, as a people - to make a
statement to the world.
2nd VETERAN: I get angry at people for no reason. And I want to just
twist Washington's head right off.
NARRATOR: America's veterans are angry. America's veterans are sick.
KIM HEBERT: When Randy left for the war, he was just in perfect
condition, until he came back from the Gulf.
NARRATOR: Did something happen in the Gulf War that made the vets sick?
The idea has excited the media.
TED KOPPEL, ABC News: ["Nightline"] Tonight, Gulf War Syndrome,
the battle between soldiers and-
ED BRADLEY, CBS News: ["60 Minutes"] -mysterious illness that has
come to be known as Gulf War Syndrome-
NARRATOR: The possibility has enraged some members of Congress.
Rep. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS, (R), CT: [at hearing] You didn't listen
to the veterans. Nobody was listening to the veterans.
NARRATOR: But many scientists worry that emotion has overwhelmed
Dr. STEPHEN JOSEPH, Assistant Secretary of Defense, Health Affairs
1994-1997: What could be more sensational than this- you know, "U.S.
soldiers gassed in the Gulf" or "Mystery illness strikes down American military
after the war"? But it's pretty clear there is no magic bullet. There is no
mystery illness. There was no "Gulf War illness."
NARRATOR: Seven years after the ceasefire, the battle rages over "Gulf
In 1991, American troops returned from a stunning victory. The Iraqi forces had
been decimated at a cost of only 146 American lives. Yet within a few months
there were signs that all was not well with the troops. Some members of an Army
reserve unit in Indianapolis based at Ft. Benjamin Harrison began complaining
of strange symptoms. One was Sergeant Jim Simpson.
Sgt. JIM SIMPSON, 123rd Army Reserve: I started having problems with
concentration and that's when I noticed the fatigue really setting in. At
times, it was very hard to focus. I felt nauseous. I didn't- didn't really want
GLENDA SIMPSON: He was just exhausted constantly. He could never get
enough rest. His motivation was deteriorating. He couldn't remember what was
being told to him. There would constantly be arguments and fights in the house
with me and the kids and him because we'd say, "Well, we told you," and he
Sgt. JIM SIMPSON: And it was about some time in November I ran into a
soldier from the battalion that said I looked terrible. And she started asking
me a lot of questions- "Have you been having problems with headaches, blurry
vision? And have you had some rashes, extreme fatigue?" Then she informed me
that there were a lot of other people were having the same problems.
NEWS ANCHOR: [Channel 18 News, Lafayette, Indiana, March 19, 1992]
Good evening. Soldiers from three Indiana-based Army reserve units that
served in the Persian Gulf are reporting health problems that could be related
to the Gulf region.
REPORTER: 123rd ARCOM command surgeon Norman Teer says none of the
illnesses are life-threatening.
Dr. NORMAN TEER: We haven't been able to rule out anything, so we're not
trying to rule out, so we're just trying to make sure that get into the right
channel and get the right tests done on them.
NARRATOR: Dr. Norman Teer examined dozens of reservists, but he was
Dr. NORMAN TEER: We got a variety of symptoms that did not fit any one
disease entity and it made it kind of confusing to us. They complained of
fatigue, problems sleeping, memory loss, bleeding gums, losing hair, rashes,
gastrointestinal problems, joint pain. So there were so many symptoms, we
couldn't attach it to any particular disease entity at that time.
NARRATOR: So Teer called the Pentagon, which sent a special medical team
Dr. NORMAN TEER: It consisted of an epidemiologist, environmental
specialist, a dental pathologist, a psychiatrist and a medical technician that
they brought with them. And that particular weekend, we know up to about 80
some people that we examined. And they took specimens of blood, urine, medical
histories from all the specialists, took that back to see if they could make a
NARRATOR: The tests found nothing. The Pentagon report stated there was
"no organic disease" and concluded that most symptoms were likely the result of
stress. But the problem was not confined to Indianapolis. Members of a reserve
Naval construction unit in Alabama and Georgia - the Seabees - were also ill.
One was Larry Perry.
LARRY PERRY, Seabees: It's like something you never had before. Like
when you have the flu, you don't hurt anywhere in particular, you just feel
miserable all over. And that's pretty much the way it runs. You get the severe
headaches and when you get two or three symptoms together, you're in the bed.
You just can't go- you can't- you can't function. There's times when I couldn't
find my way home. I've attempted to go back to work about eight times. I wound
up in the hospital with exhaustion. I can last about two weeks.
NARRATOR: Perry made contact with other Seabees who had served in the
Gulf and who were feeling ill, like Sterling Sims, Lester Hallman, John
Gonzales and affected worst of all, their friend, Gene Trucks, who is confined
to a chair.
STERLING SIMS, Seabees: Old man, how you doing?
GENE TRUCKS, Seabees: Hi.
STERLING SIMS: You put on some weight yourself.
GENE TRUCKS: I have.
NARRATOR: They felt their symptoms were due to Iraqi chemical weapons.
They were stationed at the Saudi port of Al Jubayl when a loud explosion
awakened them one night.
STERLING SIMS: When I got out of the tent, there was a mist in the air.
My eyes had been burning, my throat was burning, my nose was running, my skin
was on fire.
JOHN GONZALES, Seabees: My eyes started watering and I could not- I
could not breathe from- by no means and I was just about- just about losing
LESTER HALLMAN, Seabees: It was a yellow, powder-type substance that
settled over the flat surfaces of the compound. You could see it on the tents,
on the vehicle. Anything that had a flat surface of any description, you could
see it the next morning.
NARRATOR: Had chemical weapons been used at Al Jubayl? The Department of
Defense said there was no evidence they were used there or anywhere else. A
Navy medical team was sent in to examine the Seabees. Their investigation, like
the Army's in Indianapolis, found nothing and concluded stress was a likely
Unlike active duty troops who had full medical coverage, many veterans depended
on the Veterans Administration. To get medical help they had to negotiate a
bureaucratic maze and prove their sickness was connected to their service in
the Gulf. With an unrecognized disease and no idea what caused it, many were
MATT PUGLISI, Director of Gulf War Illnesses, American Legion: Service
connection for V.A. used to be a pretty simple thing way back when. You were
shot, you stepped on a mine, you were run over by a tank or some other awful
thing that occurred in combat and you had a clear injury that you went to the
battalion aid station with. You were treated. It was in your medical records
and then you could be compensated. When you're talking about chemical exposure
or investigational drugs that were taken, and no records were made in your
medical records, that's something altogether different.
1st VETERAN: [at meeting] The doctors that we have in the VA
hospitals now, are students.
NARRATOR: As veterans shared stories, their anger at the V.A. and the
1st VETERAN: [at meeting] Well, what the hell. If I- if I knew
what was wrong with me, why the hell would I come here?
2nd VETERAN: We want you to hear our problems, what we feel those
problems were in the Gulf.
NARRATOR: In desperation, they took their story to the media.
DAVE PARKS, "The Birmingham News": Sterling Sims called me up out of the
blue one afternoon and said, "Listen, I'm a Gulf War veteran. You want a
story?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "You got enough guts to print it?" And I said,
"Well, it depends on what it is." He said, "Well", he said, "I'll give you a
heck of a story."
NARRATOR: Dave Parks would write dozens of articles on what became known
as "Gulf War Syndrome." Journalists everywhere jumped on the story. It was a
compelling tale, a story of sick vets, of a mystery disease perhaps caused by
something exotic in the Gulf.
LYNN SHERR, ABC News: ["20/20"] How many of you have had symptoms
of aching joints?
ED BRADLEY, CBS News: ["60 Minutes"] How many of you get tired
very easily? How many of you have joint pain?
NARRATOR: Vets also told their story to Congress.
BRIAN MARTIN, Veteran: [at hearing] I have experienced swollen
and burning feet, swollen knuckles, loss of strength in my right hand, problems
with my heartbeat, shortness of breath.
1st VETERAN: Joint and muscular pain, testicular pain, myofacial
2nd VETERAN: I can't sleep. I can't drive.
NARRATOR: The vets' stories had a similar theme.
3rd VETERAN: [at hearing] Do we all have to die first before you
NARRATOR: Before the war they were fine. After it they were sick. The
diseases varied enormously. One of the most striking was that of Marine Major
Randy Hebert. Hebert was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease.
Rep. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: [at hearing] Your testimony will be read
by your dad, is that correct?
NARRATOR: He believes his condition is due to the Gulf. He is a shadow
of his former self.
KIM HEBERT: When Randy left for the war he was very active, a health
nut. He was that poster-board Marine until he came back from the war and just
slowly deteriorated from there.
NARRATOR: Did all these illnesses constitute a "Gulf War Syndrome" and,
if so, what was the cause?
KIM HEBERT: We believe Randy's illness is due to the chemical poisoning
that he received while in the Gulf War.
NARRATOR: Stung by the criticism, the V.A. began treating more Gulf War
vets and the Pentagon appointed Dr. Stephen Joseph, a seasoned public health
physician who'd worked in New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic, to lead
its medical investigation of Gulf War Syndrome.
Dr. STEPHEN JOSEPH, Assistant Secretary of Defense, Health Affairs
1994-1997: In many ways, it was a classical public health problem because
there was a scientific dilemma, a medical dilemma. Here were people with
symptoms that had all been in the same place at the same time.
The important thing, from the public health and the medical point of view, is
what are they ill with? What symptoms do they have? Can you cluster those
symptoms into groups that lead you to look for a single cause?
NARRATOR: Working with the V.A., Joseph invited any Gulf War veteran who
was feeling ill to register and undertake a full exam. Panels of scientists
were asked to review everything known about any toxin vets might have been
exposed to in the Gulf, from tropical infections to chemical weapons. Millions
of dollars were authorized to support a series of epidemiological studies to
see whether Gulf War servicemen were being hospitalized at a higher rate than
normal, to find out if they were dying at a higher rate than expected.
In all, four blue-ribbon panels were set up, including the Defense Science
Board, the Institute of Medicine and a special panel created by the president,
the Presidential Advisory Committee, the "PAC." Chaired by Dr. Joyce Lashof,
former dean of public health at U.C. Berkeley, it had an all-star cast of
scientists, physicians, ethicists and Gulf War veterans. Designed to be as free
as possible of political influence, its mandate was to get to the bottom of the
science and report on what was really happening to the vets.
Meanwhile, the scope of Gulf War Syndrome was spreading. Some families now
reported wives and children were becoming ill.
GLENDA SIMPSON: I have noticed joint aches and pains like he
experiences. I'm starting to struggle with my memory. And the fatigue, I'm
getting it, and the exhaustion, the pure "I just can't function anymore. I have
to go lay down."
Sgt. JIM SIMPSON: I started hearing about other soldiers that had these
illnesses, and their kids coming down with strange things, and I started
getting a little nervous about certain contacts with my kids. And we're getting
to the point where we're paranoid of, "No, I drank out of that glass. You leave
this glass alone. Don't drink out of my glass."
NARRATOR: But for other vets the news was even worse.
Sgt. PAUL HANSON, Ft. Bragg, N.C.: [to child] What's up buddy?
How're you doing?
NARRATOR: They believed that Gulf War Syndrome had caused birth defects
in babies born after the war.
CONNIE HANSON: When Jayce was born, he was born with no upper or lower
arm bone and his wrists connect at his shoulders. Before he had his legs
amputated, his legs were bent and twisted up, like if you can imagine sitting
Indian style. Paul and I had never seen a child like Jayce before.
Sgt. PAUL HANSON: It was a shock. I was real hurt and I immediately- I
wondered, "Man, what in the world happened?" You know, I'm not a scientist. I'm
not somebody who can figure out stuff like that, but I believe it was the
chemicals. There were oil well fires constantly. We took pills that we had no
idea what type of effect they were going to have on our systems. There are so
many contributing factors that could have caused him to be born that way.
CONNIE HANSON: As Jayce approaches the different obstacles in life, the
pain's going to come out. And that hurts me probably as much as it hurts him
because you hate not to see your children succeed in simple things in life-
just to be able to catch a ball!
NARRATOR: In November, 1995, "Life" magazine put the Hansons on their
cover. But if the media and Congress had accepted there was a true Gulf War
Syndrome, the scientific community was far from convinced. By 1996, the DoD had
examined 20,000 Gulf War vets, one of the largest clinical investigations ever
undertaken. The results were shocking.
Dr. STEPHEN JOSEPH, Assistant Secretary of Defense, Health Affairs
1994-1997: We found that there was no single unifying hypothesis that could
explain the symptoms of large numbers of people. There was no magic bullet.
There was no mystery illness. There was no "Gulf War illness."
NARRATOR: Joseph had found lots of common illnesses, but no new mystery
disease, no unique "Gulf War Syndrome."
Dr. STEPHEN JOSEPH: In some cases, they were illnesses that people would
have had whether they went to the Gulf or not. In some cases, they were
injuries that were a result of being in the Gulf. If you have a chronic
arthritis of the hip from an injury that you got jumping off the mechanized
vehicle, that's related to your service in the Gulf very directly. Then there
was a small group who had symptoms that really couldn't be understood or put
into a current diagnostic framework- headaches, fatigue, depression, muscle
soreness, joint pains, et cetera.
NARRATOR: Did these symptoms have anything to do with the Gulf? That
depended, Joseph said, on how many vets were sick out of the estimated 700,000
service men and women who went there.
Dr. STEPHEN JOSEPH: It's not surprising that four or five years after
the event, you have 40,000 or 50,000 people out of 700,000 who are ill. If you
looked at a small or medium-sized American city on any given day and said to
over half a million people, "How many of you in the last four or five years
have been ill for some period of time or haven't felt well or have had symptoms
of any kind?" you would have a number probably much larger than that.
CONGRESSMAN: [at hearing] I might say, Dr. Joseph, is there a yes
or no answer to the question? Is there a "Persian Gulf syndrome" or illness?
Dr. STEPHEN JOSEPH: Yes, there is an answer and the answer is no, if by
that you mean-
NARRATOR: As Joseph delivered the stunning conclusion in his
characteristic blunt style, he met with skepticism and mistrust. Vets now
pinned their hopes on the Presidential Advisory Committee, the PAC, chaired by
Dr. Joyce Lashof. The PAC decided to hold hearings all around the country to
find out first-hand about the veterans' problems.
1st VETERAN: [at hearing] Listen to the veterans who were there,
veterans who answered the call and are concerned about their health and the
health of their family. Don't turn your back on us.
1st VETERAN'S WIFE: A few months later we were given the devastating
news that the-
JOYCE LASHOF, M.D. Chair, Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC): It was
extremely important to the work of our committee that we really understand how
the veterans were feeling and what the issues were to them.
2nd VETERAN: [at hearing] I'm tired and I get so darned
Dr. JOYCE LASHOF: It was very difficult to sit and listen to the vets
describe their problems.
2nd VETERAN'S WIFE: [at hearing] I lost my husband and I have a
Dr. JOYCE LASHOF: Many of them are heartbreaking.
FATHER OF VETERAN: [at hearing] This cancer crucified him. It
just crucified him.
NARRATOR: Tragic and compelling though the stories were, the PAC
couldn't find any scientific evidence to support the idea that acute and
dramatic conditions like cancers were connected with the Gulf War.
Dr. JOYCE LASHOF: The problem you have is, when a group of people come
back from a particular experience and various ones find that they're ill, and
they weren't ill before they went, they naturally blame it on having gone to
the Gulf. Well, someone else could have come down with that exact same illness
who didn't go to the Gulf.
3rd VETERAN: [at hearing] Family members, wives, that are now
Dr. JOYCE LASHOF: We heard veterans describe their diagnosis that we
know happened to the general population. I mean, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
is a disease that happens to people.
JON PALFREMAN: That's Lou Gehrig's disease.
Dr. JOYCE LASHOF: Lou Gehrig's disease. And there is a veteran who has
that. He feels it's due to his service in the Gulf. We don't know the cause of
Lou Gehrig's disease, but we know it happens to lots of people who didn't go to
the Gulf. It was heart-rending to sit and listen to the woman with a child with
a congenital defect. She feels it's due to service in the Gulf . I think it's
completely understandable, but it's just not valid. Birth defects are very
common. About 3 percent of births have some type of congenital defect. The
initial studies we have show no greater frequency of birth defects among those
children born to veterans who were in the Gulf, either women veterans or
NARRATOR: The first thorough epidemiological studies began to appear in
the medical journals, studies comparing troops who served in the Gulf with
troops who didn't. The results were reassuring. Gulf War vets were not dying
from disease at a higher rate than expected, although more had died in car
accidents, something that has been found after other wars.
Gulf War vets weren't being hospitalized at a higher rate than military
servicemen who didn't go to the Gulf. And a large study showed that babies
being born to Gulf War vets had no higher rate of birth defects.
[www.pbs.org: Read the results of the studies] The PAC had discovered
only a handful of cases where there was no doubt the disease was
PHILIP LANDRIGAN, M.D., Epidemiologist (PAC): There were a few cases of
acute disease in the vets that were quite clearly associated with service in
the Gulf. There have been some 30 or 40 cases of the parasitic disease
Leishmaniasis. There had been a few cases of malaria. But I think they're
different from the chronic sort of illness that seven years post-service
continues to plague some number of the veterans.
NARRATOR: Essentially, the PAC agreed with Dr. Joseph: There was no
unique Gulf War Syndrome. There were unexplained symptoms like migraine, joint
pain and insomnia. For the scientists, there was still the issue of whether
these common symptoms could have been caused by something in the Gulf. But the
media continued to act as if there was a Gulf War Syndrome, pursuing theory
after theory about its cause.
NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: ["Dateline"] Mixed in with the smoke
pouring from those burning Iraqi tanks was a toxic radioactive dust released
when those highly effective-
NARRATOR: "Dateline" speculated that radioactive debris from the uranium
shell casings used to pierce Iraqi tanks might be the cause of Gulf War
Dr. PHILIP LANDRIGAN: I don't think so. The number of vets who have been
documented to have fragments of depleted uranium is, at most, a couple of
hundred and, using strict criteria, fewer than that. It just doesn't account
numerically for the thousands of people who complain of symptoms.
NARRATOR: 20/20 wondered about the oil fires that Saddam Hussein
LYNN SHERR, ABC News: ["20/20"] -those fires in the oil wells
that were burning our of control for so long to increased health risks.
NARRATOR: Scientists now agree that the heat drove most of the fumes
high up into the atmosphere, away from the troops on the ground.
JOYCE LASHOF, M.D., Chair, Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC)Surprisingly enough, the data from the air monitoring which was done shows that
the air was no dirtier than an average American city which, you know, sounds
illogical to us when we saw all the pictures of the oil wells and the fires.
ED BRADLEY, CBS News: ["60 Minutes"] Every eight hours during the
war, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers stopped what they were doing to
take a pill, pyridostigmine bromide, or P.B.
NARRATOR: 60 Minutes wondered if side effects from P.B., a drug
given to protect against the nerve gas soman, might be the cause of Gulf War
Syndrome. It had, after all, never been given to large numbers of troops. But
it's not new. People like Janet Wagner have been taking it for decades, in
doses 20 times larger than that used by the troops, for the neurological
disease myasthenia gravis. The FDA regards it as a perfectly safe drug and
Janet, like most users, hasn't experienced any of the chronic side effects that
Gulf War veterans have reported.
Dr. JOYCE LASHOF: The doses, as compared to treatment doses, were quite
small, so that, as a cause of any long-term illness, was considered very
NARRATOR: Nightline brought up another possibility:
JOHN McWETHY, ABC News: ["Nightline"] -causes could be heavy use
of pesticides to protect soldiers from such deadly insects as scorpions.
Dr. PHILIP LANDRIGAN: Pesticides are certainly toxic chemicals and we've
seen cases of neurotoxicity in people like park rangers in the Everglades who
slathered themselves with DEET every day for a whole season. But I just can't
imagine that thousands of people had the kinds of heavy exposure to pesticides
that would be required to produce the overall pattern of illness that we're
NARRATOR: Dan Rather suggested vaccines.
DAN RATHER, CBS News: ["CBS Evening News"] The veterans may be
suffering side effects from experimental vaccines.
Dr. JOYCE LASHOF: The majority of the immunizations which they received
are standard immunizations that we've been using in civilian life and in
military life for a long time. The two that cause concern were those that were
more unusual and not part of the standard immunization routine and that would
be anthrax and botulinum toxin.
NARRATOR: But the panel could find little evidence that these vaccines
caused the chronic symptoms.
Dr. JOYCE LASHOF: There is no reason to believe that the vaccines could
cause any problem, nor that they could be a vehicle for transmitting any other
organism, as has been postulated. These are safe vaccines.
NARRATOR: But the media's favorite theory by far was that chemical
weapons might be to blame. Since the war, the DoD had repeatedly denied that
U.S. troops had been exposed to chemical agents. But many vets were skeptical
of these denials because during the war hundreds of chemical alarms had gone
BERNARD ROSTKER, Ph.D., DoD Special Assistant, Gulf War Illnesses: There
are many chemicals that will set off a chemical alarm. Insect repellent will
set off a chemical alarm. Diesel fuel exhaust will set off the chemical alarm.
The fact that an alarm went off in no way is definitive that you've been
exposed to chemicals.
NARRATOR: But the PAC detected a logical flaw in this argument.
Dr. JOYCE LASHOF: DoD said all these other things like oils and
petroleum, waxes, all of them could cause alarms to go off, there's no way you
can say that it was due to a chemical warfare agent. And that's correct. But
there's also no way you can say that it wasn't due to it. All you can say is
"It could have been, it could not have been".
NARRATOR: But still the PAC had medical reasons for doubting that Saddam
had used chemical weapons. Their effects on humans are hard to miss. When a
religious cult released the nerve agent sarin into a Tokyo subway in 1994, the
effects were immediate, dramatic and followed a classic pattern known to
physicians since World War II: constriction of the pupils, tearing of the eyes,
respiratory and neurological symptoms, paralysis and death.
Since no such acute effects were seen anywhere in the Gulf, what were the
chances that sarin or any other chemical weapons were used by Saddam?
Dr. JOYCE LASHOF: If there had been an offensive release, there would
have been acute health effects. There's no way you could have shot off a
warhead full of chemicals and released it into a battlefield situation and not
have had illness. So I think everyone was satisfied that there was no offensive
use of chemical agents really designed to kill people. But could there have
been some release of low level? We felt that was worth exploring.
NARRATOR: While there was no scientific evidence that low levels of
nerve agent could cause delayed chronic effects like those seen in the vets,
the PAC recommended more animal research be done. But their report in early
1996 was clear and agreed with the other scientific panels. There was no unique
Gulf War Syndrome and the symptoms, like fatigue and joint pain, were not
likely the result of the risk factors publicized in the media, including
There was one factor, however, the PAC thought very likely to have contributed
to the vets' symptoms: stress.
Dr. JOYCE LASHOF: Stress has profound physiological effects on the human
body. Stress can contribute to the development of cardiac symptomatology and
even heart attacks. Stress impacts on diabetes. It's not the primary cause, but
it has an effect on the disease and how the body is handling the disease and
how severe the disease is. So stress has profound effects. And they're not
imaginary, they're real.
NARRATOR: The vets were not impressed.
LESTER HALLMAN, Seabees: Bunch of bull. If you go back and look at these
blue-ribbon panels, they are government-sponsored and government employees, for
the most part. Need I say more?
STERLING SIMS, Seabees: Do we look like we're stressed out? It's just
another delaying tactic, is all the world it is.
DENISE NICHOLS: [at hearing] This is not stress. The stress is
what the government has-
NARRATOR: Anger mounted.
DENISE NICHOLS: [at hearing] -done to us for seven years.
FATHER OF VETERAN: I know what my son died of. He died of cancer. I want
to know what killed him. And it wasn't stress.
VETERAN: It's not in your head. This illness is real. What's happening
to me is real. It's destroying my life. It's destroying my body. And as every
day goes by-
NARRATOR: So great was the anger that threatening phone calls were made
to the PAC. The panel continued its work protected by federal agents, their
conclusions unchanged. One reason they felt so sure of their conclusions was
because of the work of this man. Captain Craig Hyams, an infectious disease
specialist and Gulf War vet, wondered whether anything like Gulf War Syndrome
had happened before.
Capt. CRAIG HYAMS, M.D., U.S. Naval Medical Research Institute: It took
over a year, actually, to find all of the articles written by the physicians at
the time. Starting with the Civil War, we had a war-related health problem
known as "irritable heart" or Da Costa Syndrome and it presented similarly to
the illnesses that we're seeing now amongst Gulf War veterans. The veterans
complained of fatigue and shortness of breath and headache and problems with
sleeping and problems concentrating and remembering. At the beginning of the
First World War, there was a major problem when the British had to evacuate
soldiers from the front in France because of a condition known as "effort
syndrome" and, again, this condition presented with fatigue and headache,
shortness of breathe and problems remembering and concentrating. In fact, after
all the major wars the veterans have had the sort of physical complaints that
we're seeing amongst Gulf War veterans.
NARRATOR: And the cause? Many military doctors had thought stress was
the likely explanation.
Capt. CRAIG HYAMS: If you read the medical literature, with all major
wars the troops suffer from psychological problems after the wars. Anyone who's
been traumatized, their life has been threatened, is going to have some
NARRATOR: Are Gulf War vets like Simpson simply going through what
previous generations of soldiers have gone through? [www.pbs.org: More on
illnesses in previous wars] While few were traumatized by the violence of
the Gulf War, they endured the stress of a long build-up in a harsh desert
environment, fearful of what Saddam might do with his army and chemical
weapons. And many have had trouble adjusting back to civilian life. Still, they
found the stress theory repellent.
Sgt. JIM SIMPSON: Yeah, it was an insult. It was a downright insult.
Wouldn't you feel stressed if you lost your job and you were suddenly unable to
do certain things that you used to do on a regular basis?
Dr. STEPHEN JOSEPH, Assistant Secretary of Defense, Health Affairs
1994-1997: Why? Why is it so difficult to accept the message that when you
put young Americans or anyone in a situation that is uncomfortable, dangerous
and uncertain, that a number of those people come back from that situation with
a combination of physical symptoms and psychological symptoms? I think we all
know that. We look at ourselves in the mirror, every one of us knows that and
understands that in our own life. When you wake up in the morning and don't
feel well and don't want to go to work because you have something unpleasant
that's going to happen to you at work that day, you understand this combination
of physical symptoms, whether it's sleeplessness or depression or pains in your
joints or pains in your stomach and what's going on in your psyche.
NARRATOR: Vets who had placed their hopes in the PAC were disappointed.
So were some their advocates in congress.
Rep. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: The President's commission were quick to accept
that this was basically more of a mental problem than a physical problem. I
find that pretty outrageous.
NARRATOR: Congressman Shays, who had spent years investigating Gulf War
Syndrome, found stress an unsatisfactory answer.
Rep. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Gulf War Syndrome is not one cause, not one
illness. It's many causes, many illnesses.
JON PALFREMAN: So it doesn't rule out yet, in your view, the idea this
could be an infectious disease that affects family members?
Rep. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Oh, it doesn't rule out that at all. No, I think
it can be infectious. In some cases, I think it is.
JON PALFREMAN: It doesn't rule out that it can cause birth defects in
Rep. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Doesn't rule out that it can cause birth
defects. I believe it can.
Rep. BERNARD SANDERS, (I), VT: There is no question in my mind - none,
zero - that tens and tens of thousands of our soldiers are suffering from a
wide range of illnesses, which I believe are attributable to their service in
JON PALFREMAN: But does this go beyond symptomatology to include things
like Lou Gehrig's disease and cancers?
Rep. BERNARD SANDERS: Could it? The answer, again- you're- I'm not a
physician and I'm certainly not an expert on that illness. Do I think it is
possible? Yes, I think it is possible.
Dr. STEPHEN JOSEPH, Assistant Secretary of Defense, Health Affairs
1994-1997: People have a great resistance to hearing what they don't want
to hear. It was not a palatable message to some of the members of the media, to
some members of the veterans' groups and, regrettably, to some members of the
Congress to accept what the information- what the scientific data showed, which
is that there was a wide variety of symptoms, there was no single or unique
mystery illness and, most importantly, that stress- that psychological
stressors were very intimately and importantly related to the physical
symptoms. This was a disagreeable message and people did not want to hear
NARRATOR: Vets had craved answers to explain why they were ill. But all
the scientific panels had failed to find a Gulf War Syndrome. The story seemed
to be at an end. Then something happened that would change everything.
ED BRADLEY, CBS News: ["60 Minutes"] After denying it for years,
little by little the Pentagon is now admitting to something American soldiers
who fought in the Gulf War have been claiming for years, that they could very
well have been exposed to deadly nerve gas.
NARRATOR: In June, 1996, the Pentagon admitted it had made a big
mistake. Shortly after the ground war ended, U.S. troops had blown up an Iraqi
ammunition dump called Khamisiyah and in the process had blown up some rockets
filled with the nerve agent sarin. The Pentagon, which had resolutely denied
any chemical weapons exposure, now found itself under attack from all sides.
Rep. BERNARD SANDERS: [at hearing] I think the key question that
all of us want to know is that how come it took the Pentagon five years to
NARRATOR: Dr. Stephen Joseph, the DoD's main medical spokesman on Gulf
War illness, was accused of being part of the conspiracy.
ED BRADLEY, CBS News: ["60 Minutes"] If you knew the information
since 1991, why did the Department of Defense spend so much time-
WOMAN ON ELEVATOR: Can we please get off, please?
Dr. STEPHEN JOSEPH: Excuse me.
WOMAN: Thank you.
Rep. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: [at hearing] My question to you is when
did you know there was a chemical weapon in any of these bunkers?
Dr. STEPHEN JOSEPH: When did I know that there was a chemical weapon in
Rep. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Yes.
Dr. STEPHEN JOSEPH: Several days before the press conference.
Rep. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: How many days before?
Dr. STEPHEN JOSEPH: I can't tell you exactly.
Rep. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: No, no, no. You can. This-
Dr. STEPHEN JOSEPH: It would be an understatement to say that I was
surprised. It would be an understatement to say that I was embarrassed for the
department and for ourselves. I mean, this- the Khamisiyah issue just destroyed
any credibility the department had. It threw everything into further
uncertainty and, of course, total loss of public credibility.
NARRATOR: The heroes of the Gulf War were hauled before Congress to
answer charges of a cover-up.
Gen. NORMAN SCHWARZKOPF, U.S. Army (Ret.): [at hearing] Certain
people have charged that I and my commanders knowingly placed our troops at
risk to chemical weapons while we sought protection for ourselves. Such a
statement is a blatant lie.
Gen. COLIN POWELL, U.S. Army (Ret.): I don't think there is a conspiracy
going on. I think there's a lot of- a lot of confusion with respect to what
intelligence information did or did not exist.
NARRATOR: Everyone wanted to know what happened. Khamisiyah was a large
Iraqi ammunition storage depot that allied troops blew up in March, 1991,
shortly after the war ended. Days before the demolition, at least three
intelligence leads raised the possibility that the site might contain chemical
weapons. But the Pentagon says they were lost in the fog of war. So thinking it
was a conventional weapons site, the Army blew it up and moved on. There were
no confirmed chemical detections and no medical symptoms reported. The site was
A few months later, in October of '91, Khamisiyah was visited by a United
Nations inspection team. They found parts of the site heavily contaminated with
sarin. They also found an empty U.S. Army explosives crate. Since whoever
destroyed the site might have been exposed to sarin, the U.N. passed on its
findings to U.S. authorities. The Pentagon investigated, but dismissed the
possibility that U.S. troops had been involved. Now, five years later, Congress
wanted to know why.
Rep. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Oh, it's clearly a cover-up. I mean, I have no
reluctance in saying that. I might have earlier on, but after 11 hearings,
everything that we've learned we've had to pull out of DoD.
NARRATOR: The Pentagon claimed it was all an innocent mistake.
Dr. BERNARD ROSTKER, Ph.D., DoD Special Assistant, Gulf War Illnesses:
There was no cover-up. No one who was at Khamisiyah had any indication, any
inkling that they were dealing with chemical weapons, either during the period
they were rigging the site for demolition or after it blew up.
More on the cover-up question]
NARRATOR: Khamisiyah was a devastating blow for the Pentagon. In an
effort to restore credibility, it embarked on an extraordinary mission: to
reconstruct the Gulf War, to investigate each and every potential Khamisiyah.
The Pentagon took their show on the road to special town meetings at which the
new spokesman, Bernard Rostker, tried to reassure vets that they were now being
taken seriously. But far from reassuring the vets, Rostker attracted a newly
1st VETERAN: [at meeting] -you guys doing anything about it.
2nd VETERAN: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute! Okay, I gave-
I gave you an opportunity. Let me finish speaking.
Dr. BERNARD ROSTKER: I'll let you finish, but I take great exception to
2nd VETERAN: You should be ashamed to call yourself a veteran. You know
NARRATOR: The news went from bad to worse. Complex computer models of
the Khamisiyah release showed that over four days, a plume of very low levels
of sarin gas passed over nearly 100,000 American troops. The media, led by
The New York Times, portrayed the Khamisiyah revelations as if they were
evidence that the cause of Gulf War Syndrome had now been found: chemical
ED BRADLEY, CBS News: ["60 Minutes"] And if Pentagon officials
lied about Khamisiyah, are there other Khamisiyahs?
JOYCE LASHOF, M.D., Chair, Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC): I
don't reach conclusions without scientific data. I'll wait for the scientific
data. That's my training. That's my job.
NARRATOR: The PAC was as angry with the DoD as anyone else, but Dr.
Lashof was also worried that the careful scientific work of her committee was
being obliterated by the media frenzy over Khamisiyah. Medically, she said,
Khamisiyah made no difference.
JOYCE LASHOF, M.D., Chair, Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC): The
problem we had throughout was trying to separate the issue of exposure to
chemicals and illness due to chemicals. I continually have people come up to me
and say, "I read in The New York Times that chemicals are the cause of
it." I say, "No, no, no. That's not what we in the committee have found." We
are concerned about the issue of exposure because we think the veterans have a
right to know and we make an issue of that. And we've made an issue of the DoD
for not doing a good job of exposure. But that is not to say that we believe
that those exposures are the actual cause of illness.
NARRATOR: In reality, Khamisiyah had changed the politics, not the
science. There was still no evidence that very low levels of chemical weapons
could cause delayed chronic symptoms like fatigue.
And there was another problem. The vast majority of the troops in the plume are
not ill. And most of the troops who went to the Gulf, including thousands of
vets who were ill, like the Seabees at Al Jubayl, were not in the plume. But
most of the media failed to point this out to their readers.
In this charged media climate, vets like the Seabees were not inclined to
believe the official DoD report that they had not been exposed to chemical
weapons at Al Jubayl, that the loud noise was a sonic boom and the yellow mist
chemicals from a nearby fertilizer plant.
LESTER HALLMAN, Seabees: They knew what happened over there, but they
would have egg on their face, as the old saying goes, if they admitted it.
NARRATOR: Vets seemed more fearful than ever.
LEGIONNAIRE: [to Matt Puglisi] We weren't too happy about that
NARRATOR: American Legion spokesman Matt Puglisi, himself a Gulf War
vet, had made great efforts to get vets to pay attention to the emerging
scientific studies. Now he saw things falling apart.
MATT PUGLISI, Director of Gulf War Illnesses, American Legion: [at
meeting] The media is very, very interested in the risk factors-
There were a lot of reckless statements being made about these illnesses that
took on a life of their own. They're not helpful to the veterans. They frighten
those who are in good health and they frighten those who suffer from poor
health, as well. If you look at The New York Times, which has some of
the best medical reporters in the nation, it hasn't been allowing them- it
hasn't encouraged their medical reporters to cover this issue. Why not? They've
been covering it from a political angle with their Pentagon reporter. Doesn't
help the nation understand what's really important about Gulf War illnesses,
what are the medical complexities of this. This is not a political story. This
is a medical story. Gulf War veterans went to the Gulf and came back and some
of them suffer from poor health. Let medical doctors try to answer that.
NARRATOR: We wanted to ask The New York Times why they hadn't
assigned their medical reporters to cover this story and to answer the charge
that they had created the impression of a connection between Khamisiyah and
Gulf War Syndrome. But editor Andy Rosenthal, after agreeing to an interview,
canceled at the last minute, saying, "I never wanted to do the interview
Dr. STEPHEN JOSEPH, Assistant Secretary of Defense, Health Affairs
1994-1997: I think the media in general did a very poor job of covering
what the medical facts and what the scientific realities were.
NARRATOR: Joseph had been incensed by Life's 1995 cover story on
Dr. STEPHEN JOSEPH: The Life magazine piece was both a charade
and very cynically done. We talked to the people at Life magazine, told
them what the scientific data showed, that there was no evidence for congenital
defects. They went ahead and published in the most sensationalistic way anyway.
I think they did a great disservice to- not only to the people who served in
the Gulf, but to their families. I think they scared a lot of people.
MATT PUGLISI, Director of Gulf War Illnesses, American Legion: In one
health survey that's been conducted, a majority of male Gulf War veterans
responded that they've delayed having children because of reports of excess
birth defects in the Gulf War veterans population. That's a tremendous change
NARRATOR: When asked to respond to these charges, Life magazine
said they stand by their story. [www.pbs.org: More on the media
Rep. BERNARD SANDERS: [at hearing] Answers to questions about
troop exposure to chemical agents and their connection to the Persian Gulf War
Syndrome are long overdue.
NARRATOR: Like the media, Congress, too, had been reenergized by the
Khamisiyah revelations. Congressman Bernard Sanders got 86 of his colleagues to
sign a letter asking the Presidential Advisory Committee to change its
conclusion that stress was the likely cause of the vets' illness.
He wanted the PAC to consider the work of other scientists who'd come to
different conclusions, like Garth and Nancy Nicolson, who believed Gulf War
Syndrome was caused by a insidious biological weapon; or Robert Haley, a Texas
epidemiologist funded by Ross Perot, who had studied the Seabees and concluded
that vets who thought they had been exposed to mixtures of chemicals displayed
subtle neurological changes; and Mohamed Abou-Donia, who injected a combination
of very large quantities of pesticides and pyridostigmine bromide into chickens
and showed that their brains were affected, evidence, he argued, that a
combination of chemicals might be the cause of Gulf War Syndrome.
The PAC had already considered and rejected each of these studies.JOYCE LASHOF, M.D., Chair, Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC): One of
the studies, for instance, in chickens, of Abou-Donia, in which he gave very
large doses of DEET and pyridostigmine bromide, is not duplicative of the type
of situation we saw among the veterans. If he really wanted to duplicate what
we saw in the Gulf, he would have given them in lower doses, not have caused
symptoms, and then have stopped them and then waited several months and then
sacrificed them to see if there was anything there.
JON PALFREMAN: I asked them about many of the studies of the people in
your letter. And I think it's pretty clear that they've considered them. They
don't actually think very much of them.
Rep. BERNARD SANDERS: Fine. They don't think very much of them, but go
out to the veterans' community and go out to the people who are suffering and
speak to them. But let me turn the tables and say to all of these scientists
who tell us that nobody else is doing serious work out there, what have they
discovered after six years? What is their understanding? Oh, it's an incurable
problem? There is no cause to the problem? That's not a particularly good
Dr. STEPHEN JOSEPH: Well, one could say Congress has had 175 years to
sort out some of their problems and they haven't gotten- I mean, that's a
ridiculous argument. Hard problems are hard. You can't make them easier by
plucking solutions out of the air.
NARRATOR: In the wake of Khamisiyah, the government has allocated
millions of dollars of research to investigate each and every theory, but many
vets are tired of waiting. They have sought out the handful of scientists who
believe in Gulf War Syndrome and claim they can cure it. One of these
scientists is Garth Nicolson. Nicolson believes the vets' symptoms are caused
by an organism called a mycoplasma that Saddam had modified with genes from the
According to Nicolson, Saddam then delivered this biological weapon in Scud
missiles. But critics ridiculed his theory. What would be the purpose of a
weapon that didn't kill the enemy, but caused chronic symptoms years later?
GARTH NICOLSON, The Institute for Molecular Medicine, Ph.D.: Saddam said
he would send the war back to the United States and I think this is how it was
JON PALFREMAN: But wouldn't he have rather won the war?
NANCY NICOLSON, The Institute for Molecular Medicine,Ph.D.: It's a
question of what you mean by "winning." See, you can- to him it was probably,
in his mindset, just a battle, but sending home a deadly illness like this, the
aftermath is- in a way, he- he has won.
NARRATOR: The best proof of his theory, Nicolson argued, was that by
using very large doses of certain antibiotics to kill the mycoplasma he had
been able to cure many Gulf War veterans. One vet that Nicolson approached was
KIM HEBERT: We received a call from Dr. Nicolson right after we
testified up in Washington. He had seen Randy on CNN. And we were very
interested in trying because he was the only one that had given us any type of
hope. You've just got to put faith in someone that positive.
NARRATOR: Initially Randy seemed better, but after a few weeks he had a
setback. Nicolson also tested Kim Hebert for mycoplasma and diagnosed her with
Gulf War Syndrome, as well.
KIM HEBERT: Dr. Nicolson really believes that my signs, as far as
migraines and vision going bad and- is a sign of the mycoplasmas. But I think
all my signs are due to stress. You know, our household is not normal anymore.
I mean, we just went from a healthy relationship to, you know, your husband
being sick. And it turns your whole house upside down when Daddy's not well.
JON PALFREMAN: Can you cure Lou Gehrig's disease with antibiotics?
Dr. JOYCE LASHOF: No. If we had a cure for Lou Gehrig's disease,
especially with antibiotics, we wouldn't have any deaths from Lou Gehrig's
disease. No one can cure Lou Gehrig's disease today.
NARRATOR: The PAC disbanded last November and Joyce Lashof is back
teaching at Berkeley, frustrated that the panel's conclusions got so little
attention from Congress and the media. Joseph left the DoD medical department
and is now in private practice. He is philosophical about what happened.
Dr. STEPHEN JOSEPH: The veterans, they were hurting and they wanted
answers that were most acceptable to them. They wanted medical labels and
psychological stress was a message that was not and is not today palatable to
the vets. They don't want to hear that. I think part of the blame rests on
those who continue to whip up the issue. I mean, I think there were certainly
those in the media, there were pseudo scientists, there were individual members
of Congress who just would dredge up the most fantastic hypotheses and
explanations without a shred of acceptable scientific and medical evidence.
Eventually, this will all sort out. Eventually, those self-interested loud
voices of sensationalism will pass away. Eventually, people will look back at
this three years, five years from now and say "What did we learn from this?"
ANNOUNCER: Examine more of this report on Gulf War Syndrome at FRONTLINE
online. Read the scientists' conclusions on the major theories on causes. Take
a closer look at Khamisiyah. Was there a cover-up? And check out Gulf veterans'
health compared with other veterans- and much more at FRONTLINE online at
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LAST BATTLE OF THE GULF WAR
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Next time on FRONTLINE: old age. We all face it. Most of us dread it.
SPEAKER: What is the definition of "retirement" and what does it mean to
MAN AT MEETING: Death.
SPEAKER: Death? Did he say "death"?
MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Now I am approaching 60 and wonder what is the
American dream for the old?
ANNOUNCER: Filmmaker Marian Marzynski takes us on a poignant journey
exploring the many faces of old age.
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ANNOUNCER: My Retirement Dreams next time on FRONTLINE.
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