For RN Debbie Judd, Operation Desert
Storm lasted six months. But her health
problems from Gulf War Illness have been
with her for 12 years.
by Erin Fitzgerald
News coverage of the war in Iraq may have bellowed out of TV sets
throughout the United States on a 24-hour basis during March, but not in
Debbie Judd's house.
Judd, an RN and veteran of the Persian Gulf conflict, doesn't need a
televised reminder of life during wartime in the Middle Eastern desert. Judd
carries with her an ever-present keepsake of Desert Storm.
Serving as an aeromedical nurse in the Air Force Reserve, Judd started
feeling bad soon after her arrival at a hospital and "tented compound" near
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1991. Other personnel who arrived with her also
fell ill, but all their symptoms were dismissed as "Saudi flu."
After her six-month tour of duty, the symptoms did not disappear. In fact,
Judd has not been herself since she returned from the Gulf. "In every way,
in mind, body and spirit, I am a different person," she says.
Debbie Judd suffers from Gulf War Syndrome, now known as Gulf War
Illness, an array of illnesses reported by Judd and many other Gulf War
veterans after returning from the Persian Gulf in 1991. Soon after the war,
many veterans reported unexplained symptoms: rashes, aching joints,
abdominal cramps, diarrhea, respiratory difficulties, debilitating fatigue and
loss of memory.
"I have deep muscle aches, deep joint pain," Judd says. "I have ongoing
sinus problems. Since my return, I've had three sinus operations." She has
developed a strange anemia the doctors can't figure out: There is no iron in
her bone marrow. She has to have IV iron treatments every month. "I've
probably had more tests than any other vet in the Gulf War," she says.
Much of her former strength is gone, she says. Judd moves slowly about her
modest house surrounded by the verdant hills northeast of San Francisco,
the polar opposite of the Saudi desert. She stops to look out the window at
the contagious spring growth of grass.
"It keeps me going," she says of the three-acre spread she calls home. "I
can't keep up with it, though. Not now. I just got a sheep yesterday to keep
the grass cut."
She has difficulty retaining warmth, so she rubs her hands together as she
retrieves a piece of wood from the woodpile her son has cut for her. "If I had
to heat with gas I would go broke, so I heat with wood." She refuses an offer
of help. "It's better for me to move, even if it's difficult. If I stay still for too
long, I freeze up."
Judd is 100 percent service-connected disabled due to her service in the
Persian Gulf War. Her masters degree in Public Health Administration and
Health Services Administration, in addition to degrees in nursing and
organizational behavior, lie dormant. So does her 20 years as an RN, 13 of
them working neo-natal ICU in Sacramento-area hospitals.
What she went through, along with thousands of servicemen and women, to
gain acceptance as a sufferer of Gulf War Illness strengthened her resolve
to see justice done, even if it meant traversing a mountain of bureaucracy
and stone walls. What she went through in the Saudi desert makes her
question just how prepared and equipped the troops were who served 12
years ago in what many referred to as the "Easy War."
Nearly 30 percent of the 695,000 troops who went to the Gulf returned with
health problems that have been certified as service-related illnesses - more
than double that of vets from World War II, Korea or Vietnam. Despite all
the studies confirming this, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) initially
denied claims or made it difficult for veterans to receive an effective
diagnosis. Many vets were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"They led us to believe the symptoms were all in our heads," says Judd.
Although the VA now admits to the possible exposure of 145,000 veterans
when U.S. forces bombed the Khamisiyah weapons depot in Iraq, research
by veterans advocacy groups indicate more than 200,000 vets were
exposed to a variety of toxins in the Gulf.
And while the U.S. Congress has passed significant laws related to Gulf War
veterans, the promise of these laws has not always been fulfilled. Law
105-85, enacted in 1997, for example, requires the Department of Defense
to examine troops before and after operational deployments in order to
accurately record any changes in their medical conditions. A vivid example
of the DOD's continued failure to follow through is exemplified by
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's call March 6 for a GAO investigation
because reports indicate that Iraqi-bound troops have not received the
promised health screenings.
Although the VA has sponsored a number of research studies, it wasn't until
2002, under pressure from the National Gulf War Resource Center, that a
committee was finally convened to discuss the entire body of evidence on
Back in 1995, four years after the war, treatment for Gulf War Syndrome was
still a topic for debate. Judd formed the Northern California Association of
Persian Gulf Veterans that year to work through the long-term issues of the
short-term war. Her group and other Gulf War vet organizations joined
forces and created the aforementioned National Gulf War Resource Center.
She learned that there was, indeed, strength in numbers.
Judd saw the VA evade accurate diagnosis of veterans during her work in
an advisory capacity as an RN for the Resource Center. She helped write a
Gulf War Vets Self-Help Guide. Since many vets did not understand the VA
coding system, Judd categorized the proper codes sick vets could use to get
help from Veterans Affairs. "Many vets were being denied benefits simply
because they were unable to describe their symptoms to fit the VA's
criteria," she says.
But Judd's assistance to servicemen and women did not sit well with top
brass. The VA contacted Judd's service officer. (All returning vets are
assigned a "service officer" to help them file for benefits and negotiate the
system. Judd's was a person from the Veterans of Foreign Wars.) A VA
official told her service officer that Judd must "stop and desist" from such
activity or the VA would revoke his rights to work as a service officer.
Judd did not stop and desist. (The VA did not make good on its threat,
either.) Instead, she redoubled her efforts. She served as a board member
for the Resource Center for three years, helped compile data from a
sampling of 10,000 Gulf War veterans and participated in numerous
independent research studies. Few people know better than she how
important it is for veterans to look out for their own.
What frustrates her, she says, is that the U.S. government didn't take care of
her or her troops back in 1991 and didn't even provide materials to allow
medical personnel to do their jobs. She describes the government's lack of
preparation from the very beginning of her tour, when she held the rank of
lieutenant in a tented aeromedical hospital where casualties were brought
directly to be triaged. The stretchers used to transport patients were "old"
she says. "The first patients fell through ... they just broke."
Judd saw a lot of chemical burns. "The alarms were going off every couple
of hours to indicate chemical exposure. We didn't know what it was and,
afterwards, we were told by the higher-ups that it wasn't enough to hurt us,"
she says, shaking her head. "Unfortunately, we believed them."
From the beginning, too, she never had a pharmacy, not even cough syrup.
She relates how the British Army, on the other hand, was well equipped
and just across the hall. She remembers trading one of the patches from
her uniform to a British doctor for medicine one day. "That's the way it went
through the rest of my duty. They kept telling us the supplies were coming,
but they never arrived." By the end of the war, she says, there was not a
single patch on her uniform.
The British troops had state-of-the-art gas masks, too. U.S. troops did not.
"You have to understand, the sky was black a lot of the time - from burning
oil fields. And there were air sirens going off every two hours." A Condition
Red meant it was possible that chemicals were present. A Condition Black
meant the missiles had already hit and chemicals were definitely present.
"We would put on our chemical suits and gas masks," she says. In just 45
minutes, the administrators sounded an "all-clear."
"We'd take the suits off," she says. "That's what we were told to do."
The second night in the tented compound, they had a Condition Black. "A
Patriot missile took out a scud right above our heads. The shrapnel came
down all around us. We didn't even have a decontamination center in our
compound," she says.
Though they wore chemical suits, she believes her level of protection was
far from effective. Suits had a tape that would indicate the amount of
exposure and when the suit was to be changed. Judd was told that the suits
could be worn for a limited amount of time, but she wasn't told why.
Although personnel were sent over with six suits each, she wore the same
chemical suit throughout her six-month tour.
"They told us that [the suits] would be replaced. But the first day we were
there, there was a shortage of suits in-country. They collected all but one of
our suits to give to troops elsewhere." This, she says, "put us all at risk."
Judd recalls seeing young soldiers collect souvenir shrapnel from a downed
Iraqi scud. After the bombs landed, military authorities often told troops that
the chemical warnings were "false readings," or that the scuds that landed
near them were not chemically or biologically armed. Although the DOD's
position continues to be that scuds were not armed in this manner, alarms
to detect deadly chemicals routinely went off when scuds were present.
As proof that the detection devices were not mechanically fallible, as the
DOD claims, veterans cite the fact that the same devices are being used in
Iraq today. "If they were reading incorrectly," one veteran said, "why would
they keep them and use them again?"
When asked if there is a specific cause, such as airborne chemicals, of Gulf
War Illness, Judd is direct: "There is no smoking gun." Instead, she believes
symptoms are caused by what Gulf War Illness researcher and physician
Robert Haley calls the "chemical cocktail," which includes exposure to
chemical gas, biologicals, pesticides, burning petroleum, depleted uranium
(used in the construction of U.S. tanks and tank weaponry), experimental
pills and inoculations.
Judd knows the inoculations weakened her from the beginning. "I didn't go
in with a healthy immune system because they gave us 10 inoculations in
one day, including the anthrax vaccine. It was especially disturbing to see
this happen as a nurse." She was aware it is ill advised to mix a live culture
vaccine with another live culture vaccine.
In fact, she became extremely ill from the anthrax vaccine. When she
received the botulinum toxoid vaccine, she got even sicker. Later she found
the vaccine had not been tested or approved by the FDA. According to the
National Gulf War Resource Center, the FDA agreed to issue a waiver to the
DOD that allowed the military to issue experimental drugs and vaccines to
U.S. personnel in the Gulf without first obtaining informed consent.
"I felt bad right away," she says. "We all did. But our symptoms were
dismissed as 'Saudi flu.' We were told to go back to duty."
Judd says she suffered from these flu-like symptoms for the rest of the war.
"All of us were in excellent health when we went over there. We couldn't
have gone if we hadn't been. I mean you're humpin' and dumpin' litters
with 200-pound patients on them, hauling supplies and packs," she says.
"I was strong," she continues. "But now it's hard to imagine myself before all
Even the DOD began to look into the drugs given U.S. personnel deployed
in the Gulf. In October 1999, the DOD released a Rand Corp. report on
pyridostigmine bromide (PB), used during the Gulf War as a pretreatment to
protect military personnel from death in the event of an attack with the
nerve agent soman. Rand's review, performed under a DOD contract,
concluded that PB cannot be "ruled out" as a possible contributor to the
development of undiagnosed illness in some Gulf War vets. It also
concluded that the effectiveness of PB in protecting humans against nerve
agents is uncertain.
At long last, the DOD is sponsoring a landmark study on brain stem injury in
Gulf War veterans based on Dr. Haley's research on the "chemical cocktail,"
which was dismissed by the VA for many years. The Gulf War Health Study
of 400 veterans over a five-year period is being done at Fort Miley, the San
Francisco Veterans Medical Center in California. The study, which began in
February 2002, focuses on MRIs and spectroscopy, which helps determine
the health of neurons in the brain.
After dismissals and denials by the authorities, Judd is pleased to see the
promise of something definitive. "You can't argue with a brain scan, or an
MRI," she says, "The evidence is there."
For Judd, proof is everything. She has, after all, devoted the past 10 years
of her life to securing recognition for Gulf War veterans. Dredging up these
memories, discussing the evidence, talking about the barriers to justice
shakes her calm demeanor.
"Understand that I don't give many interviews anymore," she tells
Revolution, drilling the subject home with her piercing blue eyes. "I'm too
sick. But you're writing for nurses, and that's important to me. Because if just
one nurse out there, in the course of her duties, is able to recognize one
Gulf War vet, and not dismiss his symptoms, if even one nurse can give a
vet loving care, then the effort is worth it to me."
Terrified for Troops
In spite of everything, Judd is passionate, too, about her country and the
men and women serving it in the newest Gulf War.
"I'm terrified for troops going over there," she says. "Because this time I
believe Iraq and the U.S. will pull out all the stops. It will be far worse than
it was in 1991."
The current war has triggered physical reactions in Judd; she is having
nightmares and cold sweats.
"I cannot sit in front of the TV and watch it all day long," she says. "Seeing
the troops under fire makes me want to be there, makes me want to help.
The media goes on and on about the 'new technology' we have, but it's
much rougher out there than it looks on TV."
Judd is skeptical about DOD promises of improved safety precautions. "I'd
have to see it to believe it," she says. "We're talking about the total
environment over there. We don't know what combination of factors caused
She clarifies what she means when she says she supports the troops: "I know
what they're going through, I want them to be safe. I know they are only
doing what they have been trained to do. They're only following orders. I
only hope that by following orders they don't get let down by their
government. I hope they can get the help they need when they return."
While Judd acknowledges that protesting is "not her way," she wishes that
President Bush had listened to the protestors before the war began. "I still
wish [the war] would have been handled diplomatically. It breaks my heart,
because a lot of civilian women and children will suffer in this war."
She's unhappy with Bush's budget, which cuts billions from VA benefits. "It's
terrible because it won't just affect us. It will affect even veterans of WWII. It
will affect the vets coming from the Gulf now. And there have already been
Judd suddenly lets drop another bomb of information: She has recently
been diagnosed with colon cancer, likely related to her Gulf War exposure.
It's a rare form; only 2,500 people in the country have her same type of
carcinoma. She says she knows other vets who have been diagnosed with
cancer. Nearly 10,000 vets have died from Gulf War-related illnesses since
1991. Her own prognosis is good, though she can't receive chemotherapy
because the doctors don't think her body can take it.
"We can't be fixed," Judd says, shaking her head, referring to the thousands
of sick veterans like herself, "but we can prevent this from ever happening