Gulf War Vets Discuss Iraq

As another war in Iraq appears imminent, some of the nation's original Persian Gulf War veterans offered mixed sentiments on Veterans Day about how much the country should support another war.

"It's a frustrating feeling -- we should have stayed there and done the job the first time around," said Ret. Maj. Denise Nichols, who was a nurse in the Gulf War and now heads the Desert Storm Veterans of the Rocky Mountains.

Nichols' complaint is common among military types: The U.S. was given a limited mandate that did not allow them to depose Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein when they had the chance.

"When I left in 1991 in June, there wasn't one person in my unit who did not think we would be back -- it was just a matter of when," said Steve Robertson, Gulf War vet and national legislative director for the American Legion.

The Persian Gulf War was instigated by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. For months, the United Nations kept up an economic embargo on Iraq until President George H.W. Bush asked the U.N. Security Council in November 1990 for a tough resolution authorizing the use of force if Iraq did not withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15, 1991.

Saddam missed the deadline and two days later U.S.-led troops began an air campaign against Iraq.

Operation Desert Storm, the official name of the military battle, was fought from Jan. 17 until Feb. 28, 1991. The land war lasted approximately 100 hours.

The United States sent 400,000 soldiers to bases in Saudi Arabia and a host of coalition partners sent 200,000 more. When the action was over, 240 troops -- 148 of whom were U.S. soldiers -- were killed in action and 776 soldiers -- 458 of whom were American -- were wounded.

Since the start of the conflict, the United Nations has passed 16 resolutions demanding Iraq comply with orders to disarm. U.S. and British air forces have maintained a no-fly zone above two areas of Iraq in order to prevent Saddam from attacking his own people.

On Friday, the U.N. Security Council passed a 17th resolution, demanding the return of weapons inspectors and the immediate disclosure and disarmament of weapons of mass destruction. This resolution, however, leaves open the possibility that individual nations can force compliance if Saddam does not volunteer cooperation.

"We achieved that limited mission of liberating Kuwait, and then the next mission was maintaining the no-fly zone," Robertson said. "Now we are looking at a new mission and that will probably put a lot more troops over there to defend the country."

That doesn't bother Scott VanDerheyden, a Marine Corps Gulf War veteran who works with the National Veterans Service Fund in Connecticut. VanDerheyden said he's in full support of finishing the mission.

"Absolutely, we should go -- absolutely 100 percent. They were supposed to be doing X, Y, Z, and they aren't doing X, Y, Z," VanDerheyden said, referring to the previous U.N. resolutions. "I think [Saddam] should be removed from power."

But then there are veterans who say the government has yet to live up to its responsibility for thousands of sick Gulf War veterans, and that gives them pause about supporting another invasion.

It took 10 years, but the Pentagon has finally admitted that more than 100,000 of the 550,000 troops in the Persian Gulf were exposed to deadly sarin, mustard and cyclosarin gases during the destruction of an Iraqi weapons depot in 1991. Three years ago, the Pentagon also admitted that the protective gear given to the troops may have been faulty and may not have protected the troops from harm.

Scientists, doctors and veterans groups have tied that exposure -- and speculated that a mix of untested vaccinations given to the troops before entering the theater also contributed -- to the mysterious Persian Gulf illnesses of which thousands of veterans have complained since returning home. Symptoms range from chronic fatigue syndrome and disorientation to a rare form of Lou Gehrig's disease.

Not everyone agrees that chemical exposure and vaccinations are directly tied to the illness, but in December 2001, after a decade-long fight by veterans advocates, Congress approved a bill that would significantly expand the access vets suffering from these undiagnosed illnesses have to government health benefits.

Regulations have yet to be written, and thousands of claims are still being denied, leading Stephen Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center in Maryland, to argue that President Bush hasn't given the American people a compelling reason to go back.

"Veterans who fought in the last war and are ill think it's a big mistake to go back," Robinson, a staff sergeant during the war, said.

"Having been there, seeing the last 11 years and how the veterans have been treated, I feel differently. I'm not sure it's worth the risk," he said. "In my opinion, I think Saddam's a bad guy, he is certainly a threat. But I think this can be dealt with by world pressure -- not by U.S. pressure alone."

Nichols, who worked hard for last year's bill to pass Congress, agrees.

"I'm very concerned about the protection of our troops," she said. "As a veteran, you feel for the next group -- are we sending in another group to get ill?"

VanDerheyden says he understands the sentiments, but for himself, he was aware of the risks when he joined up.

"I was willing to live with those consequences," he said.

Robertson said he too understands the complaint of sick and neglected veterans, but "if we operated under that premise, we would never have an independent country," adding that with the exception of WWII, veterans from every war were treated negligently by the government.

"The most important part of this war is going to be the American people," he said. "They have to make sure, whether they agree or oppose the plan for going in, they have to support the soldier. They are doing what every American should be doing, serving their country. Never, ever forget that."