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Katie Halper: Gulf War Syndrome 2.0 (For Veterans Day)

November 11, 2008

Happy Veterans Day

In a Jewish Mother role reversal, I’m kvelling about my mom, Nora Eisenberg, whose Op Ed Gulf War Syndrome 2.0 appears on today’s Guardian and whose upcoming novel When You Come Home– which deals with Gulf War Syndrome– is coming out this month. Here it is. And it already got 39 comments!

The new Gulf war syndrome

US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are being exposed to toxic chemicals that pose serious health risks

Gulf War

What does a war injury look like? In the case of Iraq, we tend to picture veterans bravely getting on with their lives with the help of steel legs or computerised limbs. Trauma injuries are certainly the most visible of health problems – the ones that grab our attention. A campaign ad for congressman Tom Udall featured an Iraq war veteran who had survived a shot to his head. Speaking through the computer that now substitutes for his voice, Sergeant Erik Schei extols the top-notch care that saved his life.

As politicians argue about healthcare for veterans, it is generally people like Sgt Schei that they have in mind, men and women torn apart by a bullet or bomb. And of course, these Iraq war veterans must receive the best care available for such complex and catastrophic injuries.

Unfortunately, the dangers of modern war extend far beyond weapons. As Iraqis know only too well, areas of Iraq today are among the most polluted on the planet – so toxic that merely to live, eat and sleep (never mind to fight) in these zones is to risk death. Thousands of soldiers coming home from the war may have been exposed to chemicals that are known to cause cancers and neurological problems. What’s most tragic is that the veterans themselves do not always realise that they are in danger from chemical poisoning. Right now, there is no clear way for Iraq war veterans to find out what they’ve been exposed to and where to get help.

In October, the Military Times reported on the open-air pits on US bases in Iraq, where troops incinerate tons of waste. Because of such pits, tens of thousands of soldiers may be breathing air contaminated with burning Freon, jet fuel and other carcinogens. According to reports, soldiers are coughing up blood or the black goop that has been nicknamed plume crud.

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