The feature documentary "Women At War: Forgotten Veterans of Desert Storm" takes an intimate look at women soldiers’ wartime experiences on the toxic battlefields of 1991's Operation Desert Storm and their heartbreaking battles with Gulf War illnesses since they've returned home. Carol Williams and three other female veterans fight the Veteran’s Administration for proper treatment and benefits in their search for answers to their mysterious Gulf War illnesses. Experiences of homelessness, suicidal despair and loss of their female reproductive functions due to the war haunt them. These women experience the outrage of betrayal when they discover the VA isn't there for female Gulf War veterans when they come home. They wonder why they’ve been abandoned by the government they risked their lives to serve. Over twenty years later, their war isn’t over.
Ten years in the making, this film is told through veterans’ interviews, never-before-seen archival footage and present day vérité scenes. “Women At War” weaves a story of empowerment as these women veterans become activists in Washington, DC, fighting for veterans’ funding. Many are physically disabled by their “invisible” illnesses. Despite their physical damage, they enter research trials at Georgetown University and lay their bodies on the line during vigorous Gulf War illness testing in the Miami, Florida VA. These female veterans discover healing when they offer up their experiences to help other veterans.
Of the 697,000 U.S. troops who fought in 1991’s Gulf War, more than 40,000 were women. At that time, it was the largest deployment of women in U.S. history. Operation Desert Storm was a toxic battlefield where Scud missiles exploded, chemical alarms went off, oil well fires turned day into night and there was the smell of ammonia in the air. And there was no rear line—women soldiers drove trucks, were MPs and found themselves in combat situations, vowing not to go back to their children in body bags.
Despite secret shots and pills soldiers were forced to take, often causing them to become ill, these women did their jobs, because it was their opportunity to put into use all of their military training. They did not expect to find that sexual assault and rape by other soldiers were part of the hazards of war.
1991’s Operation Desert Storm was “ quick, very, very quick.” Carol Williams, the main character of the film, comments: “When we came home we had all the parades, we were heroes. And now we’re sick, nobody pays us any attention.” Confined to a wheelchair with multiple illnesses, Carol struggles to keep up her spirits and be outgoing, despite her condition and her fights with the Veterans Administration that wants to deny her benefits. Being the only female patient in her local VA hospital only adds to her difficulties.
Gulf War illnesses affect over 250,000 of the soldiers who served in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm. It is a multiple symptom illness that includes persistent memory problems, chronic headaches, widespread pain, gastrointestinal problems and other chronic abnormalities. The veterans’ physical complaints are often dismissed as “it’s all in your head” or “stress.”
In a search for answers as to why she keeps falling, Carol Williams travels to Washington, DC and joins a research project at Georgetown University Hospital that’s trying to discover a marker for Gulf War illness. There she meets up with Julia Dyckman, who was in the same unit as Carol during the Gulf War and suffers from similar illnesses. Dr. James Baraniuk, head of the research project, has discovered that spinal fluid contains a protein that may be helpful in diagnosing Gulf War illnesses. Carol and Julia undergo lumbar punctures, known as spinal taps, and offer their spinal fluid for the research effort.
Gulf War veteran Denise Nichols is also in Washington, DC looking for the truth behind Gulf War illnesses at a meeting of the VA’s Research Advisory Committee, charged with funding worthwhile Gulf War illness projects. She implores the committee that the veterans need their help, with so many Gulf War veterans now sick and dying. Denise is joined on Capitol Hill by fellow Gulf War veterans’ advocate, Venus Hammack, in seeking votes for Gulf War illness funding. Denise comments, “We’re not paid lobbyists. We’re not getting paid travel and expenses. We’re here with the heart and soul, trying to make a difference.” They meet with Congressmen, including John Lewis of Georgia, in a push for continued committee hearings into the truth behind Gulf War illnesses.
At the Miami, Florida VA, Carol joins with Denise and Venus in a research project run by Dr. Nancy Klimus, exploring the possible genetic origins of Gulf War illnesses. The three female veterans, hooked up to IV’s monitoring their blood and a computer tracking their respiration, each embark upon a strenuous stationary bicycle experiment to monitor their physical responses. Denise and Venus, tired and exhausted, make it through the bike ordeal. But Carol, determined to be a part of the research project, faces her greatest test yet.
At the end of the film, remembering the recent history of the Agent Orange exposures in Vietnam and World War II’s nuclear bomb experiments on U.S. GIs, these Desert Storm women veterans passionately cry out for truth in Gulf War illnesses: end the cover-ups and give veterans the help they deserve and need. As Carol says, “If we could just get some justice, we’d be alright.”