The Oct. 25 front-page section of The Oregonian was almost totally devoted to articles about the capture of two suspects in the DC area sniper attacks. At the very back, on the next to last page, a headline read, "Sniper suspect might have faced chemical weapons in Iraq."
The opening paragraph said the 41-year old suspect is a Gulf War veteran and may be suffering from "Gulf War Syndrome, an illness which experts said can result in unexplained bouts of intense violence." When I heard that a nursing student who killed several people and then himself was also a Gulf War veteran, it only added to my concern.
My mind went back to the stereotype that emerged about Vietnam vets: edgy, drugged up, and quick to inappropriate violent responses. For a lot of us, that stereotype had its ultimate portrayal in the 1976 film, "Taxi Driver," where Robert DeNiro plays a New York City cab driver who takes revenge on a pimp played by Harvey Keitel, after failing to execute his first target, a political candidate. Some viewers probably thought the DeNiro character was just plain crazy and the killing at the climax of the film a senseless event. I had mixed feelings, but the one that stayed with me was "What do we expect?" We train men to kill under specified circumstances without using much introspection or judgment. The Vietnam conflict was basically a guerrilla war, and if soldiers didn't use a slightly paranoid approach to battlefield conditions, they wouldn't last very long. It would be hard to leave those reactions behind.
Unfortunately, we may have a new stereotype in the making, this time of Gulf War Veterans. What I noticed about the recent news article was a few facts: "Out of the roughly 540,000 U.S. troops who served in Desert Storm, 175,000 are thought to have some form of the neurological and neuro-immune illnesses that have been documented so far." That's slightly over 32 percent. There are more people involved than I realized.
More light was shed on the problem by Dr. William Baumzweiger, a neurologist and psychiatrist who specializes in treating Gulf War Syndrome patients: "Once it came out that he (referring to the suspect) had a military background, I said this must be a Gulf War veteran ... This kind of bizarre story, where he is on the one hand killing people and on the other hand writing notes to the government basically pleading for help, that's a typical story you see in Gulf War veterans."
While the headline stated chemical weapons might be the problem, the article mentions that Oregon researchers just published a study saying there's no link between exposure to chemical weapons and Gulf War syndrome. "Soldiers exposed to chemical weap-ons are no sicker than other veterans of the war." Some other factor could be involved. More study is needed.
It took a long time for Agent Orange to be implicated in Vietnam veterans' health problems. Agent Orange, a 50/50 mix of 2,4,D and 2,4,5T, was one of many herbicides used by U.S. forces. However, it was dioxin that contaminated the herbicide which caused the health problems. Because soldiers cannot legally sue the government for injuries caused during their service, they sued the herbicide manufacturers (Dow, Monsanto and several other chemical companies) and won out of court settlements.
We older civilians know a little about the Vietnam War because it was televised; it was headline news complete with photos. The Gulf War, by comparison, had the news coverage and immediacy of a video game. As a society, we know very little about battlefield conditions during Desert Storm, what we did to Iraqi soldiers and civilians, or what our troops experienced.
The Oregonian article says "For five years following the Gulf War, the Pentagon refused to acknowledge that some troops might have been suffering medical problems ... Under increasingly severe pressure from Congress and the public, the Pentagon finally admitted it knew of some chemical contamination and acknowledged the veterans really were sick."
Veterans Day is a knee-jerk holiday for a lot of us, including me. While our administration once again considers going to war, it's important to remember the people who have already served and face up to our responsibility as a society to assist them. Unfortunately, too often veterans and their service-related problems are brushed aside. Too bad it takes an extreme example, headline news and so many deaths to bring the Gulf War Syndrome to the average person's attention.
Victoria Stoppiello is a free lance writer from Ilwaco.