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Birth Defects in Gulf Vets’ Babies Stir Fear, Debate

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ten babies have died here already.

The children of Persian Gulf War veterans, they died of heart defects and liver cancer. One was born with no spleen. Three were stillborn.

Their short, tragic lives--chronicled neatly by their mothers in family photo albums--are raising new fears that the mysterious Gulf War syndrome, an inexplicable, untreatable collection of afflictions that reportedly have touched thousands who fought in the desert, is now being passed on to the next generation.

Here at Ft. Bragg, home to the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, veterans’ wives learned almost by accident that they were not the only ones mysteriously losing children. Some by chance struck up casual conversations with other grieving mothers at the beauty shop; others traded stories at the grocery.

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The Ft. Bragg experience is being repeated all over the United States. With some groups believing that as many as 65% of the children born to Gulf War soldiers are suffering in some form or another, veterans and their spouses are growing confused and angry--and are increasingly refusing to have more children.

Noting that it took the government 20 years to acknowledge that Vietnam War veterans were harmed by exposure to Agent Orange, they worry that their lives are being ruined by a Pentagon that has yet to draw any relation between the illnesses and possible exposure to chemicals or other toxins.

“If they could give me some sort of medical reason, I might not feel this way--but I am very angry,” said Malulani Patrick of Fayetteville, whose child, Logan Jacob, was stillborn a year after the Gulf War ended. “This was my first baby, and our son’s death really tore us apart.”

Defense Department officials say that while they deeply sympathize with the ailments and deaths, they have yet to pinpoint a cause. They maintain that unless more research shows otherwise, U.S. soldiers in the Gulf were not exposed to life-threatening chemicals or other toxic agents, from either the U.S. military or the regime of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

Air Force Lt. Col. Doug Hart, a Pentagon spokesman on health and personnel matters, says some studies suggest that the infant deaths and birth abnormalities are in line with expected percentages in the general population.

But don’t tell that to the mothers of Waynesboro, Miss., site of a National Guard quartermaster corps. There, 13 of the 15 children born to returning Gulf War veterans suffer from serious birth defects.

Dennis West said his daughter, Reed, was born prematurely with collapsed lungs and a faulty immune system that leaves her almost defenseless against pneumonia and bronchitis.

Aimee Miller said her son, Joshua, came down with strange colds, pneumonia and high fevers. A simple mosquito bite caused his face to swell and his eyes to close shut. Some nights he would wake up in a raging fit and run through the house.

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Infant mortality rates have suddenly increased among Gulf War veterans in four counties in Kentucky and Tennessee, home base of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division; in three counties in Georgia that support the Army’s 197th Infantry Division, and at Ft. Hood in Texas.

Here in Fayetteville, Melanie Ayers lost her 5-month-old son, Michael. Except for some unusual sweating bouts, he had seemed a healthy child. Then, during a restless sleep one night last summer, he stopped breathing. And while Ayers frantically drove him to the hospital, he died.

“It’s very frustrating the way people are just patronizing to us,” she said. “They pretend they understand our anguish. But we’re getting more upset with government officials coming out and saying how confusing this all is but doing nothing to solve it.

“I’m not out to point my finger at the government. But it’s been over a year now, and all I want is for them to tell me why my son died.”

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That the Pentagon still cannot do, although spokesman Dennis Boxx says the government is pursuing the matter “very aggressively on a number of fronts.”

“We do not have any indication at this point that these things are transmittable to children or spouses,” Boxx said. “But we have not ruled out the possibility. We simply cannot. Because if we cannot diagnose it and describe what it is, we then cannot tell you that it is not transmittable.”

Hart, the Air Force spokesman, said the Pentagon is continuing to gather and examine statistics on health matters from Gulf War veterans and is comparing them with data from soldiers who did not go to the Gulf, as well as accumulating other data on the long list of ailments that have touched the soldiers and their families.

He noted that a study by the Mississippi State Department of Health, which analyzed the incidents of birth defects in Waynesboro, came up with initial findings that indicated a normal rate of birth defects for the group there.

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Yet the phenomenon persists.

About a year after the war ended in early 1991, veterans began complaining of strange diseases. Rashes, nausea, headaches, even more severe ailments such as blood clots and cancers were revealed. Pentagon, veterans affairs and private medical experts remain at a loss to explain the problems, let alone determine if they are in any way related to service in the Gulf War.

In hearings before Congress, the sick veterans charged that they were carelessly exposed to dangerous toxins and that the government knew of the health risks and was trying to cover them up.

Government officials deny this. But Congress passed a Gulf veterans aid bill, signed this month by President Clinton, that authorizes payments to veterans who are chronically ill with undiagnosed disabilities that surfaced during or after the war.

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The President, while noting that the illnesses cannot yet be medically explained, added that this “should not stop us from providing an expeditious and compassionate response to these veterans’ needs.”

However, the bill did not extend assistance to the veterans’ families, something many angry parents hope to push through Congress next year.

Meanwhile, a special Gulf War registry continues to document the individual cases of veterans. Of the 697,000 soldiers sent to the region, about 29,000 have signed on to the VA’s registry.

But it is the new indications that the disease is spreading to children that alarms many who are racing to find an explanation.

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Experts in the private sector theorize that U.S. troops may have been harmed by any of a wide range of chemical or biological agents; by uranium, sandfly fever or oil fires; or by anti-nerve-gas medications.

When they returned home and began reporting their symptoms, some of their wives also began coming down with similar rashes, fatigue and other ailments. Strangest of all, many wives complained--and still complain--of burning urinary tract and vaginal infections after having sex with their husbands. They also said their husbands produced “burning semen” that burns the skin when it is touched. And while many of the ill veterans and their families now live together in military communities such as Fayetteville and Waynesboro, the husbands did not necessarily serve together in the Gulf region. Rather, they were spread out in different units around the Gulf area, raising the possibility that any toxic exposure may not be confined to just one group of troops.

Further befuddling to researchers is the fact that some of the fathers of ill or dying children have similar ailments while others seem perfectly fine.

But one thing is clear:

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In recent months have come slow but mounting indications that the illnesses--particularly those of the children--might be related to the Gulf War experience.

Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, a molecular toxicologist at the University of Maryland, told a congressional hearing in August that scientists now know that men exposed to toxic chemicals can pass the poison directly to their children through semen. What is frightening, she said, is that the chemicals can cause genetic mutations to the sperm that helps conceive the child.

Exactly why this occurs, she added, is the “question we know the least about.”

Dr. Francis J. Waickman, an Akron, Ohio, environmental pediatrician, compared birth-defect statistics of Gulf War babies and other children. He found a 30% rate of abnormalities among the children of Gulf veterans--"probably tenfold of what is in the normal population,” he said.

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But as experts delve further into the issue, he said, more questions pop up.

“Can it be passed on? The answer is yes, insofar as we have hard evidence that chemicals can absolutely decrease numbers of sperm.

“It can create an infant whose immune system does not function normally, and as a consequence this can be a cause for the increased incidence of infections in these children.

“But does this alter genes? And can this occur when you have severe chemical exposure?”

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He answered his questions this way: “To my knowledge, this is the first time we’ve ever had such a large group exposed to a possible large degree of chemicals, so we better learn from this whole series of events.”

Betty Mekdeci, founder and director of the Assn. of Birth Defect Children in Orlando, Fla., is also studying the illnesses and deaths. Her group is circulating 10,000 questionnaires to Gulf War families in search of information that will be thoroughly dissected in a search for trends and patterns. What she hopes to determine is whether the ailments and fatalities are linked to the war.

“These families need to know,” she said. “They need answers now on whether they should have more children.”

In addition, a recent report by the government’s General Accounting Office identified three factors--pesticides, oil fires and decontaminating agents--that were present in the war environment and may have caused “reproductive dysfunction” in the soldiers.

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But how direct and widespread the exposure was remains debatable.

“The studies performed to date are unfinished,” the GAO said, “cannot be generalized, or are too weak methodologically to demonstrate convincingly that there are or are not abnormally high reproductive dysfunction rates among Persian Gulf veterans and their families.”

It is this kind of lingering doubt that continues to confuse the parents of the ill and dying. The only thing they know for sure is that their children born before the war are fine, but those who came later are not.

Kim Sullivan of Fayetteville, whose son, Matthew Adam, died in his sleep at 10 months, said he had seemed fine since birth. But after his death last year, doctors discovered cancer that ruptured his liver and caused him to hemorrhage.

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Sullivan has since learned that it is extremely rare for children to contract liver cancer, and she said she has been told that “it is not likely but is also not unheard of” that there could be a Gulf War connection.

She opened a photo album and showed pictures of her seemingly healthy son, one taken shortly before his death. Not knowing, she said, is the worst pain of all, and until she knows, her dream of having more children is on hold.

“I guess not until I’m brave enough to know I could handle a death,” she said. “I guess that’s hardhearted, but that’s the way it is.”


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