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The troops are workers too

Is there a 'Gulf War syndrome'?

Kerry O'Brien, Compere, 7.30 Report:

With Australian soldiers, sailors and aircrew now engaged in another war against Iraq, veterans of the previous Gulf War are still waiting for information about the health problems that have plagued many of them since. One in five Gulf War veterans has some sort of disability. And three years ago the federal government commissioned a special study to find out why. The completed report was handed to Veterans' Affairs Minister Dana Vale at the start of the year and she's on record saying it would be released quickly. But it hasn't been released yet and, with no date set, veterans are angry they're being kept in the dark. Natasha Johnson reports.

David Watts, Gulf War Veterans Association: Basically we feel betrayed. We seem to think with a bit of cynicism the government wants to bury this health study in the break out of war so it's not a media issue.

Graham Bertolini, Gulf War veteran: The PM's got a copy. Why can't we have a copy? We're the ones whose lives are affected, not the PM.

Natasha Johnson, Reporter, 7.30 Report : As a new generation of fit Australian troops fight Saddam Hussein, Gulf War veterans are still battling the health consequences of the first conflict. One fifth of the 1,800 men and women deployed in 1991, are on some sort of disability pension. There's international debate about the existence of a specific Gulf War syndrome. But there's no doubt the Australian veterans like those from other nations involved in Operation Desert Storm are suffering a variety of illnesses, including chronic fatigue, psychological problems, gastrointestinal and skin complaints.

Graham Bertolini: Until going to the Gulf, I was perfectly fit, healthy, had no medical problems.

Natasha Johnson: Graham Bertolini was just 21 when deployed on board HMAS Brisbane. He's been sick ever since, he can't work and survives on a TPI pension, meaning totally and permanently incapacitated.

Graham Bertolini: I've suffered from a lot of effects, ranging from fatigue, through to heart problems, muscle and joint pains. A lot of rashes and unexplained skin blemishes.

Natasha Johnson: In an interview with the 7:30 Report when the health study was launched three years ago, he revealed he was frightened to start a family because of his illness.

Graham Bertolini: We haven't even considered starting a family as yet because of the fact of the unknown.

Natasha Johnson: Do you still feel that way?

Graham Bertolini: Definitely. Until we can get some sort of clarity exactly what is wrong, I'm not going to be able to take any risks.

Natasha Johnson: It's the Gulf War veterans' health study he's been waiting on for clarity. It was launched by the federal government three years ago after pressure from veterans. Researchers from Melbourne's Monash University examined those who went to the Gulf and compared them with a group of personnel who were in the forces at the same time but didn't go to the Gulf. The report was completed at the end of last year and handed to the government early in the new year. On February 6, the Veterans Affairs Minister Danna Vale told Parliament the full report would be released within weeks and pointed to some of the findings, particularly that there was no unique Gulf War syndrome.

Danna Vale, Veterans Affairs Minister: The death rate and cancer rate for both Gulf War veterans was lower than expected than in the general population. However, the study found that the Gulf War veterans are at more at risk of developing psych (inaudible) disorders.

Natasha Johnson: On February 10, the Minister told the 7:30 Report that the health study would be released in two weeks. But just a day later controversy erupted after revelations on this program that sailors currently deployed to the Gulf were refusing anthrax injections because of fears about Gulf War syndrome. Labor MP and Vietnam veteran Graham Edwards who's championed the Gulf troops' cause, claims the report's been withheld for political reasons.

Graham Edwards, Labor MP: It seems to me they want to tightly control this report and the information that's in it. I might be wrong but, if I'm wrong, let's have the government release the report and let's see what's in it.

Natasha Johnson: Many Gulf veterans like Graham Bertolini blame their health problems on the injections and anti-nerve gas tablets they received, particularly because they believe they had many more than are documented in their records.

Graham Bertolini: I can remember we were lining up and were like pin cushions. We were getting them in both arms and you were walking through meal lines and you had to grab pills out of the cardboard boxes. It was just sort of routine.

David Watts, Gulf War Veterans Association: From virtually every veteran I've spoken to, we've all got around seven needles in our vaccination logs, those of us with access to it. We all believe it was approximately double that.

Natasha Johnson: David Watts heads the association representing about 80 Gulf War veterans and worked with the Monash researchers in setting up the study. He says it's wrong to send a fresh contingent to the Gulf when the health problems of the first haven't been resolved.

David Watts: To say that Defence is now giving those people informed consent about what is going to happen to them when they haven't released a health study on it is a lie. It's not informed consent is it?

Graham Edwards: It's vital they know what is in the report so they are better able to prepare for any health issues which may arise.

Natasha Johnson: Veterans Affairs Minister Danna Vale declined to be interviewed. Her office denies the report's release has been delayed, just that it's still being considered. But 12 years after their tour of duty gulf veterans like Graham Bertolini are getting tired of waiting for answers.


This program went to air on ABC-TV's 7.30 Report on 24 March 2003, and the transcript is reproduced with kind permission. The government released the Monash study of Australia's veterans of the 1991 Gulf War the following day. The study found that the troops were more likely to develop psychological disorders, particularly posttraumatic stress disorder, and that Gulf War veterans were more likely to self-report some medical conditions such as back and joint problems, skin disorders, fatigue and neurological, respiratory and other symptoms. The executive summary can be read at:


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