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Lingering Casualties Vets Struggle To Find Answers Frustration Becomes Another Symptom In Search For Medical Help

Gulf War veterans who suffer from unexplained illness say they want respect, not sympathy.

They volunteered to fight for their country once, and most said they’d do it again - if they could.

While many Gulf War veterans show no ill effects of their service in Operation Desert Storm, a growing number are reporting health problems. Here are the stories of three Inland Northwest veterans trying to get answers, and treatment.

Becky Atkinson doesn’t buy the argument that her medical problems are post-traumatic stress disorder.

She wasn’t in combat during her seven months in Saudi Arabia with the 525th Military Intelligence Battalion. She wasn’t stressed by her job as an Army telecommunications specialist near Riyadh and Dhahran.

“I wasn’t traumatized when I was over there. I had the time of my life,” she said. “We had a purpose. I felt like I achieved something.”

After returning from the gulf, Atkinson married, became pregnant and left the Army. In the last four years her hair started falling out, her heart races, her vision has deteriorated and she breaks out in hives. She can’t stay awake, stumbles over common words and forgets things she’s told repeatedly.

“This is my brain,” she said, pointing to a notebook she carries to remind her to do simple things.

The 25-year-old mother of two doesn’t know what about her Gulf War service is causing her problems. She remembers being so tired she slept day and night after receiving a battery of shots; she was told it was just the heat. She remembers the little pills - probably pyridostigmine bromide, a nerve gas antidote - her unit was ordered to take daily under a sergeant’s supervision.

She remembers several times when the warning sirens sounded for chemical attack. “We were told it was a false alarm, but we were in (chemical protection) gear for four days.”

When she can work, she’s a nursing assistant at a Pomeroy, Wash., nursing home. Her headaches sometimes are so severe she is sent to the emergency room at the adjoining hospital.

Ralph T. Hinton, director of staff development for Garfield Hospital, wrote Veterans Affairs staff that he has seen Atkinson so lethargic she is “virtually comatose.”

“She does not complain unduly, nor does she fabricate problems,” Hinton wrote.

Atkinson said Walla Walla and Spokane VA doctors told her the problems are a result of depression and stress, that she doesn’t have Gulf War syndrome. She believes the stress is the result of her medical problems, not the other way around.

“My whole family suffers here. We are bankrupt,” she said. “Where do I have to write? Who do I have to talk to?

“I’d like to be able to see somebody who knows something about this.”

Dale Belieu has been through dozens of tests trying to discover why he has fatigue, diarrhea, joint pains, dizziness, panic attacks and double vision.

The Orofino, Idaho, man spent eight months in Oman with the 1702nd Air Refueling Wing. He thinks that’s where he got the problems with his nervous system.

Last year he paid his own way to Los Angeles to see a VA doctor who treats Gulf War syndrome vets. But even with a diagnosis and a list of drugs recommended by that doctor, the Spokane VA Center initially balked at filling the prescriptions.

It didn’t have any research to show the drugs would work. The doctor who prescribed them, William Baumzweiger, is controversial within the VA system for his methods and outspoken criticism of how Gulf War vets have been handled.

As he waited in his hospital room at the Spokane VA Center, Belieu said he didn’t care about internal struggles within the VA. When you wake up vomiting blood, such things don’t matter much.

“It’s not like I’m being a crybaby or I’m wanting anything I don’t deserve,” said Belieu, who sells auto parts when he’s well enough to work. “The military doesn’t owe me a living. But the system has left me out there by myself. It’s a pretty lonely feeling.”

After reviewing Belieu’s case, Spokane VA chief of internal medicine, Howard Platter, agreed most of the drugs on the list are worth a try, as long as Belieu understood their side effects. He suggested other non-prescription medicines the 39-year-old vet could try.

Platter’s response was a watershed for Belieu. In the last four years, he has been to VA centers in Spokane, Walla Walla and Seattle more than a dozen times. Finally, he found a doctor in the region who would listen and work with him.

Tony Willner remembers questioning the shot and the two brown pills he was ordered to take one night in December 1990 while his ship moved through the Persian Gulf.

Flu shot, the medic aboard the USS Kiska told him. Willner, the ship’s electronics specialist, said he’d already had a flu shot. Roll up your sleeve, he was ordered.

Malaria pills, he was told. Aren’t we supposed to take malaria pills for several weeks? Willner asked. Shouldn’t you warn me not to give blood for a year?

Just take them, said the medic.

Willner doesn’t know what the drugs were - they aren’t listed in his service records - or if they caused the long list of medical problems that have nearly incapacitated him. Maybe it was something else, like whatever was tripping sensors that checked for traces of chemical weapons in the air and water around the ammunition ship.

The sensors were malfunctioning, the crew was told. Willner, who tested and maintained the equipment, was sure they weren’t.

After leaving the Navy in late 1992, he kept getting sick with flu-like symptoms. He started running high fevers, his kidneys burned, his joints ached.

“I felt like I was dying. I felt like something was eating my spine,” said the Spokane Valley man who hasn’t been able to return to work at the state Corrections Department for a year.

Willner has been in and out of the Spokane VA medical center and seen private doctors. At one point, VA doctors ordered a psychiatric evaluation. He’s not crazy, he said, he’s sick.

“We’ve had (VA) doctors say ‘Why are you here? Nothing’s wrong with you,”’ his wife, Carla, said.

The Willners have called their senators and congressman. They’ve appealed a VA ruling that denies him any disability payments for his medical problems. They testified before the President’s Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illnesses last summer.

But Carla Willner wonders if anyone is really listening to them, or the thousands of other Gulf War vets suffering strange illnesses.

“Sometimes it seems you’re just a number,” she said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos (3 Color)

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