For RN Debbie health problems from Gulf War Illness have been with her for 12 years

    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."

    Evasive Actions

    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
    toxic exposure.

    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.

    False Readings

    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?"

    Chemical Cocktail

    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
    this happened."

    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
    these illnesses."

    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
  2. Visit pickledpepperRN profile page

    About pickledpepperRN

    Joined: Mar '99; Posts: 13,361; Likes: 1,375


  3. by   P_RN
    Brave lady.
  4. by   SmilingBluEyes
    she is brave but has an uphill battle ---the government has a LONG history of ignoring, and outright abusing her most decorated and giving of vets. I hope she can see some satisfaction, not just for us vets but for her own peace of mind for working so hard and giving so much for our freedom.
  5. by   mattsmom81
    WOW. Puts things in perspective doesn't it.....look at what this brave lady is going through.

    Makes me feel guilty for whining about my puny little problems.

    From what I saw the troops this time through had what they needed....but maybe we aren't getting the whole story either...makes me worry for our brave troops. :stone
  6. by   P_RN
    So far my hubby (vietnam era vet) has done pretty well in the VA system, but then he has typical 60 yr old medical problems except his hearing (helicopters, computers etc).

    I can't imagine the horror and the pain this lady has just trying to get what is right and deserved.
  7. by   ceecel.dee
    In this day and age, it's hard to imagine that the consent thing is still being brushed aside by "The Higher Ups" that "certainly know better than the huddled masses".

    This woman, who hasn't the health or strength to do her life's work anymore, but will make an exception for her fellow nurses, is heroism personified.

  8. by   sanakruz
    Why is there no mention of plutonium 238 in that article? That's the main ingredient in "dirty" bombs, the kind we dropped on Iraq in '91 and then again in GWII.

    ASPARTAME did not cause these vets symptoms....
  9. by   pickledpepperRN
    Gosh I don't know. Tell us what you know. I can post links about DU if anyone is interested.
    Don't know about plutonium 238.
    She probably doesn't either. Sounds bad.