About 3% of the nearly 700,000 Americans who served in the Persian Gulf War theater in 1990 and 1991 have reported they are suffering from a variety of serious and in some cases crippling ailments, including memory loss, fatigue, rashes and muscle and joint pains.
The sources of many of these problems remain a mystery, though it's likely that exposure to such chemical products as fumes from burning oil wells and depleted uranium used in munitions and armor plating may be among the causes. It also seems increasingly likely that at least some of the reported health problems can be traced to the use of certain drugs administered to counteract the feared use by Iraq of chemical and biological agents. In an effort to protect the health and lives of uniformed personnel, the U.S. military may have inadvertently done some of them serious injury.
Three drugs have drawn particular notice. One is licensed only for the treatment of myasthenia gravis, a chronic muscle disorder. Another is approved to protect against anthrax. The third is a still-unapproved vaccine to combat botulism. At the request of the Pentagon, the Food and Drug Administration granted waivers to use the drugs.
It's easy in retrospect to question this decision and the subsequent broad administration of drugs that were either unproved or narrowly intended for the treatment of a specific disease. But these actions can't be divorced from the context in which they occurred. Iraq had used chemical agents before, against Iranian forces and against some of its own rebellious citizens. There was every reason to try to protect U.S. forces against such a hideous contingency.
Clear links between the illnesses suffered by some Gulf War veterans and the chemicals they may have been exposed to have yet to be proved. But clearly thousands of veterans are suffering, and many charge that the Department of Veterans Affairs has done little to ease their plight. We don't know how much, if any, bureaucratic indifference there may be. We do know that the 20,000 or so Gulf War veterans who have reported serious service-related ailments have a moral claim on their government to get straight answers about the illnesses and how they can best be treated.