What else

IssueJune - July 2022
Comment by Rebecca Elson-Watkins

On 11 May, thousands of veterans of the First Gulf War of 1991, those affected with Gulf War Syndrome, were vindicated.

After over 30 years of official denial and gaslighting, the cause of the veterans’ suffering has finally been identified: sarin gas.

Odourless, tasteless and wildly fatal (a few drops on bare skin can kill), sarin is one of the most toxic chemical weapons known to humankind. Unknown amounts of sarin (and other chemical weapons) were released into Iraqi air when Western forces bombed Saddam Hussein’s stockpiles in 1991.

We now know that low levels of exposure to sarin, combined with a less effective version of the PON1 gene, leads to Gulf War Syndrome (GWS).

GWS brings problems with brain function, higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), muscle pain, chronic fatigue… the list goes on. The military charity, the Royal British Legion, thinks up to 33,000 British veterans could be living with this condition.

Unsurprisingly, but still shockingly, no one in the West has bothered to count how many Iraqi civilians might have GWS. There is nothing written about it in English that I could find. I saw literally one comparative study on a handful of Iraqi veterans and even that was done to benefit the US veterans they were compared to, not the Iraqis.

Now the cause of GWS has been identified, will British GWS survivors finally be listened to? Probably not.

The ministry of defence said: ‘We continue to monitor and welcome any new research that is published around the world and financial support is available to veterans whose illness is due to service.’

To me, that sounds like ‘we’re doing all we’re going to do – stop asking awkward questions.’

The numbers back up my gut instinct – only 1,300 of those 33,000 British veterans with GWS receive that financial support.

Our government didn’t accept the existence of GWS until 2005. Even after this acceptance, in 2010, the majority of veterans applying for a military pension were denied. They’re still being forced to submit individual claims for each symptom of GWS. Many simply gave up.

I have to wonder if they used this system as a model for the department for work and pension’s ‘personal independence payment’ (PIP) scheme for people with ‘a long-term physical or mental health condition or disability’.

The exhaustion and dejection voiced by Gulf War veterans feels eerily familiar, mirroring the same feelings in myself and thousands of other people with disabilities.

During 12 years of chronic underfunding of the NHS, mental health services have been brutally cut. From my experience, the NHS was already not great at dealing with PTSD – even in London with its concentration of services.

Prevention is always better than cure, and a lot of preventative care has fallen by the wayside as medics have to concentrate on emergencies. Hypertension (aka high blood pressure) is another symptom of GWS. It’s called a silent killer because the first physical symptom is often a heart attack or a stroke. Simple check-ups can detect and medicate the problem but, even pre-COVID, getting a face-to-face appointment has been a struggle.

I can’t talk about an ‘invisible illness’ like GWS without also mentioning medical gaslighting. GWS survivors experience it from the military, society and others.

I have experienced it from medics, society and others.

There is a common response to a young, healthy-looking person reporting being in pain and feeling exhausted. It is: ‘It can’t be that bad’.

It’s been suggested to me that people reflexively say this, partly due to fearing the fragility of their own health.

While somewhat understandable, it’s not excusable. It’s also actively harmful. When people in pain speak their truth, the absolute least we can do is listen and believe them.

As with any other social justice issue, we must listen to those directly affected. So I close with the words of a GWS survivor. Writing in the Guardian, Kevin Muldoon said: ‘I want the MoD to say sorry for ignoring what doctors and veterans were telling them. The suicide rate among Gulf war veterans is high and the parents of veterans who took their own lives as well as the thousands of us who continue to suffer from exposure to sarin deserve confirmation of what we are now being told. But most of all we deserve an apology.’

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