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The Legacy of Toxic Wounds

While the Gulf War of 1991 has faded from the memories of so many in the United States, thousands of its veterans are still affected by the impact that war had on their health. Almost 700,000 troops drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait in that conflict, one in four of them have subsequently lost their health due to toxic exposure during their campaigns. 

Many of the veterans and families that have been impacted by toxic exposure are hoping that the inauguration of a president that understands the health implications of such exposure means that their country will finally start providing the necessary care for them. 

Hailed as a great victory for the U.S., the calamities that ensued as a result of common practices during the Gulf War have long been overlooked. Today we know that at least 175,000 servicemembers returned home with constant pain, fatigue, and chronic neurological problems that are now referred to as Gulf War Illness. With the 30 year anniversary occurring this month, these servicemembers are not among those celebrating. 

It is essential that the Gulf War is remembered from the perspective of these servicemembers who fought in, and ultimately suffered the long-term consequences of the war. The same approach should apply to how we look back on the other major conflicts such as the post 9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Vietnam. The former left over 5,000 dead, 53,000 wounded, and more than 213,000 veterans with reported respiratory diseases, cancers, and other health problems from burn pit exposure. In Vietnam, on the other hand, 58,000 servicemembers died and 153,000 were wounded. But a staggering 650,000 suffer or have died from illnesses related to Agent Orange. 

It seems as though all of these conflicts were cases of friendly fire in which our own practices lead to the substantial health consequences for many who fought. In the Gulf War, the military ordered its troops to take anti-nerve gas pills and sprayed pesticides to protect them from insect-borne diseases.  However, the VA still maintains that there is not a clear association between these practices and the health conditions of so many.  As a result, the veterans impacted by these practices have not been able to receive the coverage they need and deserve. Currently, the VA rejects more than 80% of Gulf War illness claims. 

The VA’s stance on the Gulf War’s heath implications is not an outlier. The VA rejected the notion that Agent Orange exposure caused adverse health effects for 20 years after Vietnam, even up to 40 years for certain related illnesses. Claims related to burn pit exposure in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been denied at a rate of 78%. 

The government’s policy of refusing to admit the health implications of these conflicts has been dubbed a “deny until they die” policy by veterans. Advocates believe that such a policy is doomed to fail in time, when the truth ultimately comes out. “The time is ripe and long overdue for a total reversal of government attitudes toward toxic wounds,” says James H. Binns, a Vietnam veteran. 

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