Twenty-four years ago, I served in the first Gulf War. It still amazes me how time can heal wounds—both physical and mental—while smoothing out the sharp edges of painful memories; mental glimpses that have the ability to snatch away any sense of peace.
My writing career actually began as a cathartic effort to heal my soul. In 2001, on the 10-year anniversary of the Liberation of Kuwait, I entered the Rhode Island State House—filled with rage and anxiety—and delivered the following presentation:
“In August of 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait with his henchmen, compiling the fourth largest army in the world. The atrocities and inhumane acts committed toward Kuwait prompted support from around the globe. War was declared. The world called it Operation Desert Storm and volunteer soldiers—me and my brothers and sisters—were called to serve out country. Within a few short months, soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines arrived in the Middle East to defend Saudi Arabia, liberate Kuwait and embarrass the biggest bully of the post cold war era. America’s sons and daughters entered a barren wasteland to exact justice. The responsibilities brought to bear, however, were immense, as there was so much at stake. Politically, there was America’s leadership of the free world. Economically, one tenth of the world’s oil resources. Morally, the protection of human life. But silently, there was a rebirth of America’s spirit. The veterans of Operation Desert Storm went to heal our nation from a ghost that had haunted us for two decades; the poltergeist of Vietnam
“In 1991, as a shield was replaced by an angry storm, Saddam Hussein threatened us with the mother of all battles. In turn, President George Bush drew a line in the sand. That line was quickly wrapped around Iraq and used to choke the life out of thousands. Fortunately, due to the heavy debt paid by the veterans of the Vietnam War two decades earlier, military tactics had dramatically changed. Foot soldiers were no longer expected to step on enemy soil until absolutely necessary. As such, 41 days of uninterrupted bombing cleared our way. All that we needed for victory was given: the phenomenal support of a patriotic country, and enough troops and equipment so that backfilling and a war of attrition would never be suffered. We were blessed and knew it.
“Though Hussein swore it would take us months to cross the breach from Saudi Arabia to Iraq, it took only hours. The Allied Forces moved fast, crushing the first of three Iraqi lines of defense. As if they weren’t even there, our American war machine rolled right over them, discovering we’d overestimated the enemy. It was clear: While Hussein chose to sit out the air campaign, the Iraqi people bore the brunt for their ruthless dictator and like all victims of war; they paid with gallons of their own blood. In such a time and place, it seemed necessary. They were wearing uniforms. It was war.
“It took four days, or a mere 100 hours, before the ground war was ceased. History was made. In triumph, Kuwait was liberated, while Hussein was humiliated before the whole world. An unconditional withdrawal was ordered. Politically, the sadistic demon was slain. In reality, unlike thousands of his own people, he still lived. Yet, from our perspective—soldiers who were not tasked to dictate foreign policy, but instead follow orders and proudly perform our duty—all objectives had been met and our mission accomplished.
“America’s moral crusade was complete. On February 28, 1991, ten years ago, Iraq surrendered. Yet, the fighting for many of us was far from over. While America’s technology continued to erase the poltergeist of Vietnam, many of us servicemen and women were invaded with our own ghost of torment. Amidst the daily chaos, we’d experienced the frailties of our own mortality and, unlike CNN’s sanitized version of the desert clash, the realization that there is no glory in war. Then, as a lasting memento, most of us were brutally introduced to ‘The Mystery Illness.’
“Unfortunately, these factors only added up to half of our inner struggles. From many perspectives, Operation Desert Storm became a war of anxiety and rage. Most of us were trained to fight, sent to strike, yet watched as technology did our job. Adding to the frustration, many folks criticized that it was merely a war for oil. Only ignorance would claim that America was not protecting its vital interests in the Gulf region. However, as Hussein displayed the same behavior as Adolf Hitler, that same ignorance might believe he would have never invaded Saudi Arabia, seized its vast oil resources and translated those profits into more weapons. To say the least, it was an honorable and just cause—at least to those of us who served.
“Returning visibly whole to a proud and grateful nation, many of us Persian Gulf veterans reported being violently ill with flu-like symptoms. Immediately, the cruel game was sinful. After the meticulous pre-war exam, most veterans of Operation Desert Storm weren’t even given a token physical examination. The army didn’t even pretend to care. Sharing the same painful tradition as our predecessors of Vietnam, Uncle Sam just wanted us off his menial payroll. After months of selfless service to our country, most of us were dismissed without so much as a proper medical screening. Only months earlier, we—America’s defenders of democracy—proudly answered our country’s call. With honor, we helped free Kuwait from the forces of oppression. Now, suffering from a wide variety of debilitating symptoms, we were never diagnosed or treated for any. Once great assets to our country, we were now considered liabilities.
“In retrospect, there were several likely causes for the crippling ailments. We’d been exposed to radioactive depleted uranium used by the Allied Forces. There were preventive, or experimental, vaccines administered to all American troops. There was also the possibility that chemical agents were used in the many Iraqi Scud attacks. The government offered other potential causes. They claimed the puzzling illnesses could have been caused by microwave radiation, petrochemicals, insect bites, parasites, contamination from oil well fires—even the Allied bombing of specific bunkers storing Iraqi chemical agents. The list grows by the month. They point fingers in every direction but their own. Ironically, the answers needed can only come from the same government that’s always realized some truths are just too big, or too expensive, to tell.
“Together, we were forced to fight again. This new battle, however, would prove far more fierce, with an invisible enemy much better prepared to fight. Now, ten years later, the veterans of Operation Desert Storm are still fighting for the truth; the truth about what the government quickly labeled the ‘Persian Gulf Syndrome,’ or ‘Mystery Illness’—which is never a promising adjective.
“And although most of us Persian Gulf veterans have learned that all war wounds aren’t suffered on the battlefield, the government was generous enough to hand us another dark secret. Not all war wounds are visible either. For many Desert Storm Veterans, although the yellow ribbons and flags were taken down, the shiny medals have lost their gleam and the euphoria of victory has subsided, the war is far from over.
“Operation Desert Storm was completed one decade ago, yet many veterans still embark on a more painful mission. Most have been carried away in the eye of their own storms; the type of storms that rage out of control deep inside, tearing at the spirit; the whole being. Unlike Hussein’s vast army, there are two enemies to fight this time. The first is the U.S. government. The second battlefront, and one far more ferocious, still rages within his heart and mind.
“291 American lives were lost in the theater of operations, while nearly 10,000 other brothers and sisters have died since returning home. Some have criticized the length of the war in which we served, though I sincerely doubt that the families and friends of these fallen comrades have grieved any less. Countless other Persian Gulf veterans silently suffer from an invisible disease that often equates into cancer, neurological diseases, respiratory disease…the list goes on. The numbers, in fact, are staggering. Out of 700,000 troops serving in Operation Desert Storm, with nearly 600,000 being eligible for benefits through the VA, 45% have sought medical treatment at the VA, while one-third of those have filed claims for service-related medical disabilities. These numbers do not even touch on the higher rate of birth defects in our children, the many marriages lost, the careers destroyed and the other hefty prices paid for freedom; many of which are still being paid. So, it has become quite apparent: anything not easily detected by the eye is easily dismissed. We cannot let this happen. We must not let this happen.
“Personally, my experience in the Gulf was, no doubt, quite ordinary. Though I lost my endocrine, or gland system, and have endured many of the symptoms of the Persian Gulf Syndrome, I’ve always known I was blessed and have felt it my duty to give more. For years, I have screamed aloud so that those who suffer silently would have a voice. For those who served in the Gulf, it is important to me that they never feel alone again. It is imperative that they always know there are others who wrestle with the same feelings of fear and rage, who now suffer from the same invisible illness, and who also fight for personal justice with the government. For those who did not serve but might still care to listen, please know that understanding brings about compassion. Without the support of family and friends, the darkness would prove unbearable.
“My message is clear: We were taught to value loyalty above all things except honor, yet those who called us to serve have shown neither. Silence has become our greatest enemy and the truth is no longer for the government to conceal. Though they fear compensation, we seek treatment. Those who served back in ’91 are men and women of honor; not people looking for a handout, but only the truth so that they can return to their lives and take care of their families. That shouldn’t be too much to ask.
“Again, the complaint was never in being sent. With babies being tossed from incubators in Kuwait, it was an honorable cause and it was we who volunteered to right that wrong. The complaint lies in the way we were returned; having legitimate issues and nowhere to turn.
“My brothers and sisters of Operation Desert Storm once stood together against an evil oppressor and fought to liberate those who could not free themselves. No one can ask us now to be seated and not stand for what we still believe. So we must stand together again to fight for our own government’s acknowledgement and treatment. We helped to win the war, now we only need to win the peace. Thankfully, not one of us is alone!”
After more than two decades, I’ve learned that—in many respects—war is a state of mind and a person cannot live in two worlds at one time. One must face his demons and call an internal truce before there is ever a chance for peace. And so I did. Through perseverance, I finally received medical treatment through the Veterans Administration. And in support of others who have served, I have used my pen to bring respect to those who have completed tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as awareness to their post-combat suffering. My latest novel, Gooseberry Island, was written to serve those very purposes.