Ten years later, postwar mystery sickness, longevity of Saddam regime remain as legacies

Veteran cites unfinished business of Gulf War

Posted: Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Ten years after Operation Desert Storm catapulted U.S. troops into the Persian Gulf War, its effects loom large in the lives of those Alaskans involved.

Yet no public observance of today's anniversary is planned on the central Kenai Peninsula.

"I think a lot of that is that the war is not over," said Martin Hall, a veteran who serves as chaplain for the AMVETS post and is active in researching Gulf War Illness issues.

The United State's declaration of war against Iraq is still in effect, troops remain stationed in the region and Saddam Hussein remains in power in Baghdad, he noted.

However, lingering effects of the conflict strike closer to home for people like Hall, who says he suffers health problems linked with vaccinations the military gave him when he was mobilized in 1991.

Hall's involvement is full of ironic twists.

The AMVETS post he joined three years ago is named after David Douthit, the Soldotna man who was the lone Alaskan killed in the combat.

"He was a brave man, who was one of the 147 casualties over there," Hall said.

Hall is careful to specify that he was never actually in the Persian Gulf theater.

"I try not to tell people I'm a Gulf War vet. I'm a Gulf War era vet," he said.

He estimated that five to 10 Gulf War veterans live in the Kenai-Soldotna area.

Hall joined the military as a volunteer in 1978. A captain in the Alaska Army National Guard at the time the conflict broke out in Kuwait, he was put on active duty and eager to serve, he said.

"By 1991, I belonged to the mightiest and finest military force in the world," he said.

He had training regarding tank, chemical and biological weapons. His unit was assigned to guard the trans-Alaska pipeline and assist in training combat units. They were prepared for active duty and told they could be shipped out on three-day's notice.

"They wanted us ready in case the ground war went badly," he said.

It didn't.

"That was a war Americans could be proud of," he said. "And the people of America, they honored the troops."

Hall described how peninsula residents put out yellow ribbons and donated boxes of cookies and other gifts, piled up at the National Guard Armory in Kenai, to send to the troops.

"I'd never seen an outpouring of support like that for our military. Our morale was 100 percent," he said.

When the troops returned victorious, there was a lot of celebration.

"After all the hoopla, and we got back, people started getting sick," Hall said. "A lot got sick and died, and we don't know why. I suspect there were several different reasons."

He was suspicious of claims that detectors for chemical and biological warfare agents gave useless false positive readings. He trained extensively with such equipment and found it reliable, he said.

Hall also was uneasy about odd things that began happening with medical records.

As a National Guard officer, he had handled guardsmen's medical files. But when the military began testing soldiers for HIV, it ruled the files were confidential and consolidated all medical records for Alaska at Fort Richardson.

When he was mobilized in 1991, he was given a lot of vaccinations. Then clinic staffers told him they had lost his shot records.

In 1993, he went back to sign up with the National Guard after a year off. He was told his medical records were missing. Military doctors gave him a complete physical. Then he was told those records were lost. He returned for another physical in 1994.

"Basically, the same thing happened. My blood tests and everything just vanished," he said. "I was pretty upset."

He resigned from the Guard.

But then he started getting sick.

"By 1996, I was bedridden," he said.

At the end of 1997, he was diagnosed as having antibodies to squalene, a fatty chemical used in some experimental vaccinations and suspected of links with auto-immune diseases. Squalene exposure is considered one of the prime suspects in Gulf War-related health problems.

After two years of treatment recommended by specialists on Gulf War Syndrome, Hall improved, but he still has severe health problems. One, a rare blood disease, was transmitted to his wife and daughter.

Now Hall is on a crusade to get the military to help veterans like himself.

He praised some congressional leaders and organizations such as the AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion for their support of the investigation and health care.

Government agencies, in contrast, have been skeptical, and some officials have suggested the veterans' ills are psychological.

"The Gulf War veterans are not a bunch of crazies. ... We are being told we are losing our minds," Hall said, with a trace of bitterness.

"I know a lot of Gulf War veterans have gotten mad. ...," he said. "We want answers."

In the decade since 1991, Hall has followed events in the gulf region closely. He considers Saddam Hussein a tyrant who rates with Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler in terms of the damage he has inflicted on his own people.

"Personally, I think they blew it," he said of the war's so-called end in 1991. "They should have gone into Baghdad and gotten him."

He considers it an irony that the 10th anniversary of the conflict's start is falling so close to the inauguration of another George Bush into the White House and Gen. Colin Powell as Secretary of State.

Powell and Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf still bear responsibility for taking care of the men and women who served under them, Hall said.

Hall is curious to see how the new Bush administration will treat Gulf War veterans. He hopes Congress will order the Department of Defense to test the veterans for traces of squalene.

"It would be very redeeming if President (George W.) Bush would follow through," he said.

He noted that Vietnam veterans had to wait 25 years to get the Veterans Administration to treat problems suspected to be from Agent Orange defoliant. These issues become part of a larger problem of trust between soldiers and the government.

"As a young man of 18, would you trust your government with your life?" he asked. "You know, what I want out of this is an apology."

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