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Last Updated

17 Dec 2002

Source: Guardian Unlimited (UK), June 16, 2002.


Inquiry gives fresh hope to Gulf veterans

Commission flies in to hear evidence of British troops' disabilities and increase pressure on Government

Kamal Ahmed, political editor

Compelling evidence that thousands of British troops who served during the Gulf war are dying prematurely and suffering debilitating illnesses because of exposure to a lethal cocktail of chemicals is to be put before a powerful commission of inquiry.

Experts on war illnesses will tell a meeting in London of the US Congressional Subcommittee on National Security this week that there is now enough evidence to make a direct link between serving in the Gulf and physical and mental disability.

Shaun Rusling, chairman of the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association, will reveal that tests on veterans have found traces of depleted and enriched uranium in their blood and urine.

Depleted uranium was used by the Ministry of Defence in 'tank-busting' missiles during the Gulf war. Many of the men affected were involved in clean-up operations following Desert Storm in 1991. Illnesses among more than 5,000 British veterans will also be linked to powerful immunisation tablets given to soldiers to protect them from chemical attack, including anthrax, and the use of corrosive organophosphates to try to keep down disease.

The US Congressional subcommittee, one of the most powerful investigatory bodies in America, will make an unprecedented trip to London this week to hear the evidence. Ross Perot, the billionaire former American presidential candidate who is funding a campaign for US Gulf war victims to be properly compensated for their ill nesses, will also come here to push for a full public inquiry.

The moves will increase pressure on the Government to hold a wide-ranging investigation. The MoD has always insisted that there is no proof of a link between serving in the Gulf and increased incidence of illness. Tests on immunisation tablets given to most of the 50,000 British troops who served in Kuwait and Iraq are continuing at Porton Down, Wiltshire, but results are not expected for another year.

MoD officials fear that if they accept there is a link the department will be liable for millions of pounds in compensation claims. Many of the civil servants who agreed to allow the men to be exposed to the cocktail of chemicals are now in very senior positions in Whitehall.

Some of the most harrowing evidence will be given by the widow of Nigel Thompson, a petty officer in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm who served in the Gulf. Thompson, the father of a seven-year-old daughter, Hannah, died in January of motor neurone disease, one of the fatal nerve disorders now being linked to the conflict.

'As a military operation [Desert Storm] appeared a stunning success,' a memorandum of evidence drawn up by his widow Samantha to be presented to the committee will say. 'Unfortunately, though, on returning home a substantial number of veterans became ill.

'Very early on it became clear to Nigel and many others that a number of potentially fatal mistakes had been made in the pre-treatment of our troops against a possible chemical or biological attack by the Iraqis.

'By authorising the use of Naps [immunisation] tablets, an unlicensed drug, and then totally ignoring the warnings of organophosphates and anthrax the MoD were guilty of the worst type of negligence.

'Nigel always maintained that had his condition been triggered by something in the Gulf he would far rather it had been the enemy responsible than his own side.'

New research expected to be published in the medical journal the Lancet later this year will show that although there is no such thing as 'Gulf war syndrome', an illness said to be specifically linked to veterans, there is a connection between a myriad of illnesses and serving in the region.

Tests on 300 armed forces personnel by the respected Gulf War Illnesses Unit at King's College Hospital, found there were higher incidents of unexplained illnesses among those who had served in the Gulf as opposed to those who had served in Bosnia or Northern Ireland.

The research was undertaken by Professor Simon Wesley. Although he refused to comment on the new findings, he said there was now enough evidence to make a link.

'We have shown, in the work we have already done, an association between serving in the Gulf and substantial levels of ill health,' he said. 'The effect is significant. I am convinced there is no single one cause to what we are seeing but that the immunisation policy is part of a wider jigsaw.'