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It looks as if we didn't realize how terrible the Gulf War really was. But now we're being told, three years later.

We deployed 650,000 troops; 148 Americans were killed in action; 122 died in other ways; 467 were wounded. The Gulf War, on the ground, lasted a couple of days.

But now I am reading in the May issue of Esquire a piece by Gregory Jaynes called "Walking Wounded." This is all about how terrible the Gulf War was and how the people who came back are still suffering. This is worse than the Bataan Death March.

I have a sneaking suspicion on reading Mr. Jaynes that we are in for a new version of the post traumatic stress we heard so much about after Vietnam and have been hearing about ever since. He calls this "mysterious malady" the "Gulf War Syndrome."

Basically the charge is that while the troops were over there either Saddam Hussein unleashed some poisonous stuff into the air, chemical or biological warfare ingredients, or the smoke from the oil well fires, or insects or something, injured and are continuing to hurt the men (and the fewer women) involved. But if you believe these guys, and obviously they believe what they're saying, then the 96-hour (or whatever it was!) Gulf War was just about the worst war anybody ever fought and no combat veteran ever suffered quite as much.

With all the best will in the world, a little of this does go an awfully long way. Our VA hospitals are filled with guys who've been in there since 1942, '43, '50, '67. And these guys from the Persian Gulf who aren't in hospitals are wringing their hands and complaining they can't hold down jobs or satisfy their wives or, God save us! can't stand up.

"Gene Trucks," writes Mr. Jaynes in Esquire, "started falling down in Saudi Arabia and now can't stop."

Mr. Trucks is 55 years old. He was a member of "an Alabama Seabee unit." "Seabees" are what the Navy calls construction battalion workers. I didn't realize we had Seabees on active duty past the age of 50. But here is Gene Trucks, at 55, falling down.

Then there is a photo with Mr. Jaynes' story of Flois Webster, a member of the 644th Ordnance Company. He is 61 years old and describes himself as a "Korea veteran." In the photo he looks like Father Christmas with a long beard. What in hell was a guy who fought in Korea doing up there on the line in the Persian Gulf where he could suffer what is diagnosed as "chemical exposure"?

Then there was a man named Nick Roberts who is 39, another former Seabee. He and his buddies Larry Kay and Roy Morrow and Bob Wages told their story to Jaynes. He admits it's like reading Samuel Beckett.

"I'm taking shots for my headaches now. Them shots cost me $75 apiece. By the time I get on back to the house it kicks in, so I have to either get in bed or on the couch ... last night was a bad night for me. I couldn't get to bed before 6 ... must have gone to the bathroom 20 times ... you notice your sweat smells worse than it used to? ... Roy, here, stinks ... you take your shirt off and it's awful ... I'm an inch and a half shorter ... it's happening to Roy Butler. He's shorter. I'm losing my hair ... my weight has fluctuated 50 pounds this winter ... "

Another vet tells the writer, "one day he was fine; the next, half of him could not move."

"Can't none of us hold a job. We all living a nightmare, man. I've had a headache for two damn years. WE all got skin sores all over the place. Lookee here ... "

"Some of us bleed from the penis. Bleed all over the sheets."

Their complaint? "The problem is the government don't want to admit we got gassed."

Mr. Jaynes reports: "Mean little stories of illnesses began to come out of the woods of Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi (most from National Guard outfits) ... the first numbers (of illness) of any consequence came from the VA ... of 13,700 veterans surveyed, 71% reported some physical problem and 80% reported mental or social-adjustment problems.

"The phrase, `Gulf War Syndrome'-no diagnosis, no treatment-was running through the ranks."

I guess three million Americans went to France in 1917-18 and 200,000 were killed, a lot by poison gas. In World War II 14 million Americans served, a quarter million were killed. Guys sweated New Guinea's jungles, North African deserts, tropical atolls, the Philippines, Japanese P.O.W. camps, German stalags and came home and got jobs and bought houses from Mr. Levitt and went to college on the G.I. Bill. Some 60,000 died in Vietnam, more than 54,000 in Korea.

And here we have a 96-hour war with 148 guys killed and there are all these construction battalion people (their usual combat role is to build things, not shoot anyone or get shot at) and other support personnel and they are suffering. Mr. Jaynes reports on a woman with the 490th Chemical Battalion out of Alabama. She has "chronic arthritic pain," he says. For God's sake there are people I know down the street who have arthritis; and they never saw the Persian Gulf!

I don't want to say this is a scam or mass hallucination because I don't know enough. These folks Jaynes spoke with surely sound convinced their illnesses are genuine. But I just have sneaking, instinctive suspicions about the whole business. Take Willie Hicks of the 644th Ordnance Co., Alabama National Guard. The first day of the war Willie and his outfit were issuing ammo when an order came to suit up in full chemical-warfare gear.

"As we were running to the bunker, we were burning," Hicks said. "My face was burning." Jaynes adds, "He said they stayed in their masks and protective gear for 24 hours."

Now damn it all, you can't stay in a gas mask 24 hours, can you? These were guys handing out ammo to real soldiers and someone yells, "suit up!" and they not only get into protective suits but they go hide in a bunker for 24 hours while the real soldiers need the ammo?

No front-line troops seem to be among those reporting they have shrunk or are falling down or have headaches and bleed on the sheets. Just support personnel. And they are talking about the briefest war since The War of Captain Jenkins' Ear!

Do I smell a con running here, somewhere? Or am I just a cynic?

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