Gulf War veterans and federal agencies explore whether ailments are related to a tiny organism. By GEORGE CORYELL, Staff Writer, The Tampa Tribune
George Coryell covers the military and can be reached at (813) 259-7966.
TAMPA - The 325th Maintenance Company went to the desert to fight a despot and came home to fight for their health.
Ten years later, they're still fighting to get well.
Fewer than 10 percent of the National Guard unit from Lake Wales that went to Saudi Arabia remain in service.
Many are no longer able. Others were simply disillusioned. Their call to duty was part of the United States' response to the Aug. 2, 1990, invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces.
When the men and women of the 325th got to Saudi Arabia, they went to work repainting heavy vehicles from the Army's VII Corps coming in from Europe. The green camouflage paint on the tanks was meant for woods and fields, not for a rush across brown sands.
The vehicles had to be tan. For almost eight months they toiled at paint sites in the ports of Al Jubayl and Ad Dammam. They painted until the ground war began on Feb. 23, 1991. After it was over four days later, they set to work painting the armor green again.
The haze of paint fumes the troops lived in could be seen and smelled a mile away. When VII Corps showed up to replace the 325th, its commander wouldn't let his people paint because he considered it unsafe.
Many in the approximately 200-member Guard unit came home sick.
Of them, Bobby George, 51, of Auburndale is perhaps the sickest. His legs are useless from the knees down and he breathes with the help of an oxygen tank. He has lupus. He is losing his sight.
"When we started painting vehicles we had no protective gear," George said. "We were told we either paint or we go to prison."
Before going to the Persian Gulf War, he was a karate instructor, a second-degree black belt in the Japanese Wado-ryu style. He ran every other day and was in better shape than many of the younger Guard members.
"Now I can't even cross the room without losing wind," he said.
Gulf War syndrome. Gulf War illness. For as long as troops have been back, some have been sick. The government has moved from denying any reason for illness to admitting something is wrong. The Defense Department now has a special assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, Medical Readiness and Military Deployments.
Endless theories about oil smoke, chemical or biological toxins, nerve gas, vaccinations, unseen organisms or insects have been advanced as causes for so many Gulf War veterans being sick. But for this unit, the cause seems clear.
Michael Kilpatrick, chief of staff of the Gulf War illness office, said the 325th's problems are no mystery.
"With CARC [paint] spraying, you expect to see pulmonary symptoms," the doctor said.
A Department of Defense report released on July 27, 2000, says an estimated 200 members of the 325th Maintenance Company were exposed to CARC, or chemical agent resistant coating, a specialized version of automobile paint.
The manufacturer's safety sheet spells out the dangers. Chronic overexposure to the paint's vapor can lead to asthma-like symptoms. Prolonged exposure can permanently damage the brain, nervous system, liver and kidneys. Another hazard is hypersensitivity pneumonitis, with symptoms of fever, muscle aches, headaches, malaise and shortness of breath.
Mike Hentzen, aerospace coordinator for the manufacturer, Wisconsin-based Hentzen Coatings, said the paint, which stops chemical agents from leaching into a vehicle's finish, must be applied by someone wearing an air-assisted respiratory system.
The Defense Department report concluded that the troops of the 325th were not properly equipped for the paint duty.
GEORGE FELT SICK during the war, but didn't pay much attention to it.
"The medics there acted like it was hay fever," he said. "I thought it was over when I got home, but six months later, it started all over again and just got worse. "I used to run every other day, and I could feel it in my lungs and my knees. ... My right fingers twitched and I could barely breathe, barely walk."
In 1994, George went into Tampa's James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital using a cane. He emerged 10 weeks later in a wheelchair.
"It ate half a lung. It looks like it was cut in half," George said.
He received a medical discharge in September 2000 with 100 percent medical disability.
Some of the 325th veterans speculate about whether paint alone is responsible for their ailments. They worry about the vaccinations designed to protect them from germ warfare. They remember chemical alerts, and recall Scud missiles that broke apart near them leaving a mysterious powder.
George and Scott Harrison, 36, of Bartow, who is waiting for a medical discharge, talk about being sent to a spot near King Khalid Military City, a massive base about 500 kilometers north of Riyadh where Iraqi ordnance was being destroyed. George remembers the winds whipping a green mist into the camp. "Everybody put their mask on," he said.
Harrison said after that "people had diarrhea, headaches, a lot of nausea.”
Kuwait's burning oil wells blackened the air with smoke, and the wind carried traces of nerve gas.
The war zone was a toxic stew.
Before the war, Bill Carpenter, 60, could manhandle a 300-pound pump through the Citrus Hill Manufacturing Co. in Frostproof where he worked.
Now he struggles to cross the living room. His joints lock and burn. He has trouble breathing and is painfully sensitive to odors from hair spray, cologne and burning leaves.
Carpenter got out of the 325th in November with 60 percent disability payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs because of his lungs. It was a long struggle to get the military to acknowledge the problem.
"It was like talking to someone who stood there and looked you in the face and called you a liar," he said. "It was very frustrating. One Air Force doctor made the statement to me that I was his welfare patient of the month."
EVEN THOSE STILL in the unit say their health was compromised. Sgt. 1st Class Terry Thornton, 44, of Lake Wales said you only have to watch the unit exercise to pick out who went to the Persian Gulf War.
"We were in the paint all the time, with just some homemade stuff to help keep the paint off us," he said. It wasn't until Thornton returned from Saudi Arabia that fatigue and memory loss began. "I didn't feel sick at all over there breathing it, with the threat of war hanging over us," he said. "I didn't pay it no mind."
Kilpatrick said the troops were exposed to paint without proper safety equipment.
"Very clearly, the standards of individual health were not followed," he said.
Members of the 325th said they complained about the lack of paint masks or suits from the beginning. Some used their chemical masks but the filters were never changed, they said, and quickly became fouled, making them worthless.
The complaints resulted in a letter from Lt. Col. Hu Blazer of the 176th Maintenance Battalion that admonished the commander of the 325th, Maj. Hal McGregor.
"I and the commander of the 593rd Area Support Group are tired of fending off accusations from leaders of your unit that they do not have adequate equipment for the CARC Painting Facilities at Dammam and Jubayl," Blazer wrote on Dec. 31, 1990. "It is apparent that you and members of your unit have used every means available to express these concerns.
"The facts are to date both painting locations have not failed to paint any and all vehicles that showed up at their sites and in our view, they do have adequate equipment to meet the mission requirements."
McGregor said there was a perception by the Army that the complaints from the 325th were baseless. "Basically that was their notion," McGregor, 53, said. "There is a war on. Why are you whining?"
McGregor left the National Guard eight years ago and now lives in Tampa. He says about half the people in the 325th had not been trained for the painting. They were filling in wherever they were assigned.
BLAZER, WHO LIVES in Tennessee, said he personally spent $100,000 every two weeks from Nov. 1, 1990, onward for needed equipment in Saudi Arabia for the battalion, including chemical suits and charcoal-filtered gas masks for the 325th.
He said the troops were ordered to spend no more than 15 minutes painting without changing the suit, and they were to replace the filters in the masks daily.
"The commander of the 325th took it upon himself that he didn't have the proper safety equipment, so I bought the equipment and the masks," Blazer said. "I personally went to each site and instructed them on how to use the masks."
Blazer said they were told to wear their chemical suits within 50 meters of painting, and gas masks when they were closer. The site was marked as toxic, he said.
"If they used their chemical masks they did so on their own prerogative and at their own risk," Blazer said. "If they didn't use the masks [he furnished], they ought to be responsible for their own health."
In response to Blazer's assertions, McGregor said some safety equipment filtered down to the unit, but equipment shortages were not the main concern for the Army with a war on its hands.
"None of us knew what the problem was," McGregor said. "I had sick people." Harrison said the unit received suits, but not the masks. "There was no mask, nothing to block the vapors," said Harrison, who was at the Jubayl site. Harrison said he suffers from respiratory problems, depression, high blood pressure and memory loss.
"It almost feels like I'm an Alzheimer's candidate," he said, "and it's scary."
Members of the unit say they were worried after a civilian painter warned them the paint was toxic, but they were following orders. "If we didn't paint, we would get court-martialed, so regardless of whether we had the right equipment or not, we were going to paint," Harrison said.
THE 325TH LEFT for Saudi Arabia just after Thanksgiving 1990. They returned just before the Fourth of July in 1991. They were so eager to see their families again, even feeling sick, that they all refused to stay on for medical evaluation at Fort Stewart, Ga., said Rick Clemons, 54, of Lake Wales, a deputy with the Polk County Sheriff's Office who served in the 325th.
"We went through a cursory physical. They said if you had any problems, they would keep you for a month," he said. "We had to sign on the paper that we had no problems. Everybody wanted to go home. We all signed those papers."
Clemons said that at Al Jubayl he developed a severe sore throat and headaches.
"Of course, they gave us aspirin and sent us back," he said. "I was very sick at Al Jubayl. I hurt all the time now, but I have to work. I have kids."
Veterans Affairs is trying to help those veterans, said Robert Roswell, director of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Bay Pines in Pinellas County, as well as all other veterans hospitals in Florida. "I would say any veteran involved in painting should seek care from the VA and let us help them seek compensation."
When the 325th held its two-week annual training at Fort Stewart in 1992, medical exams revealed unexplained rashes, headaches, fatigue and sleep problems. Some troops had asthma symptoms, or chemical sensitivity.
The office of Charles Canady, then their U.S. representative, took up the issue with the Department of Defense. The military eventually conceded there could be permanent harm from the paint. At a congressional hearing in 1993, Maj. Gen. Robert Ensslin Jr., adjutant general for the state of Florida, acknowledged more than 200 Army National Guard members who had not completed medical treatment were released from active duty. While meant to speed them home, he said, it created problems since their war-related exposures or related symptoms had not been reported, evaluated, treated or documented.
As of October 1999, 66 members of the 325th Maintenance Company had received medical evaluations, and 97 members had received VA Persian Gulf Registry evaluations. Of these 163 soldiers, 70 were diagnosed with a respiratory disease.
"One of the guys said we wouldn't be here in 10 years, when we were at the paint site," said Clemons. "Well, here it is 10 years later, but who knows what's around the corner."
(CHART) IN THE LINE OF DUTY
The Persian Gulf War and the service of the men and women of the 325th Maintenance Company of the Florida National Guard:
May: Tensions build in the Middle East as Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein accuses Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates of overproducing oil and conducting economic warfare against his country.
July: Hussein accuses Kuwait of stealing oil and begins preparing his forces.
Aug. 2: Iraq invades Kuwait. Saudi Arabia invites in U.S. forces to safeguard the kingdom and the United States begins putting together an international coalition to take back Kuwait. Eventually, 26 nations commit troops and materiel to the effort to free Kuwait.
Oct. 11: The 325th Maintenance Company of Lake Wales is activated, along with the 743rd Maintenance Company from Fort Lauderdale. They are the first Florida units to go on this status since the Vietnam War.
Nov. 28: More than 400 members of the two maintenance companies leave Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia, arriving in Saudi Arabia the next day.
Dec. 17: The United Nations sets a Jan. 15, 1991, deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. Hussein says no. The 325th Maintenance Company sets about painting the tanks and trucks of the Army's VII Corps from green to tan at two sites in Saudi Arabia.
Jan. 12: Congress grants President George Bush authority to wage war.
Jan. 17: The air campaign against Iraq begins at 3 a.m. Baghdad, Iraq, time.
Jan. 19: Iraq fires Scud missiles at Israel and three days later begins blowing up Kuwait's oil wells. Iraqi forces pump millions of gallons of crude oil into the Persian Gulf in an environmental war.
Jan. 30: Coalition forces battle Iraqis in the first important ground battle of the war at Khafji, Saudi Arabia.
Feb. 1: The United States warns Iraq it will retaliate if chemical weapons are used against U.S. troops, who now number a half-million.
Feb. 23: The coalition forces launch a ground war that is over within 100 hours. U.S. Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's troops use a "left hook" maneuver to cut across the desert with the main attack against Iraqi forces. The 325th Maintenance Company moves from the paint sites to the desert while the ground war is carried out.
Feb. 25: The Army's 101st Airborne Division cuts Highway 8 in Iraq's Euphrates Valley, a main supply road. The Iraqis counterattack against the 1st Marine Division. An Iraqi Scud missile hits U.S. barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 28 U.S. soldiers and wounding 98.
Feb. 26: An allied attack on Iraqi troops escaping Kuwait City results in a highway of death. VII Corps hits the Iraqi Republican Guard. Hussein announces Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.
Feb. 27: Coalition forces enter Kuwait City. The U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division fights the battle of Medina Ridge against the Iraqi Republican Guard in Iraq. Bush declares Kuwait liberated.
Feb. 28: A cease-fire takes place at 8 a.m. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, time. After the war, the 325th Maintenance Company repaints the VII Corps tanks back to green.
May 2: Sgt. Tracey Brogdon of Bartow is killed in a traffic accident in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, the only member of the 325th Maintenance Company to die there. Casualty estimates originally put the number of Iraqi military dead at 100,000, but more recent estimates are 20,000, with 2,300 civilians dead. U.S. casualties include 146 killed in action and 476 wounded, with 121 U.S. troops killed in noncombat incidents. Other coalition countries list 99 killed in combat and 434 wounded.
June 26: The 325th Maintenance Company returns to Fort Stewart, Ga.
July 3: The unit returns to Lake Wales.
(CHART) Whom to call
The Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, Medical Readiness and Military Deployments can be reached at 1-800-497-6261.
(CHART) (C) The paint risk
Chemical Agent Resistant Coating, or CARC paint, contains isocyanates, solvents that harden or plasticize the paint. Asthma is the most common health risk from long-term exposure to isocyanates and respiratory problems are a typical complaint among those exposed. Prolonged overexposure to the vapor can result in permanent damage to the brain, nervous system, liver and kidneys.
Source: Hentzen Coatings Inc.
(2C) Bobby George, 51, of Auburndale was a karate instructor before his duty in the Persian Gulf War. He blames paint exposure for ailments that limit the use of his legs and force him to breathe with an oxygen tank. Right, George in 1990.
Photo from Lt. Col. Hu Blazer, U.S. Army retired
(C) A member of the 325th Maintenance Company uses chemical agent resistant coating to paint an armored vehicle tan.
DAVID KADLUBOWSKI/Tribune photo
(C) Scott Harrison, 36, of Bartow remembers suits, but says there were no masks to block toxic vapors. With respiratory and other ailments, he is awaiting a medical discharge from the 325th Maintenance Company.
GREG FIGHT/Tribune photo
(2C) Bill Carpenter, 60, of Frostproof was used to moving heavy equipment before he served in the war. In November, he was discharged as 60 percent disabled, but it was a struggle. "It was like talking to someone who stood there and looked you in the face and called you a liar," he says. Left, Carpenter during the war.
(C) Hal McGregor, commander of the 325th in the war, says complaints were not taken seriously.
(C) Sgt. 1st Class Terry Thornton, 44, of Lake Wales says when the company exercises now, it is clear who served in the Gulf War. His fatigue and memory loss began after the unit returned home.