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Sometimes when you ask a silly question, you get an intelligent answer. So it was with the May issue of The American Journalism Review (AJR), in which writer Kate McKenna blew 6,000 words asking why the media took so long to start investigating what’s become known as "Gulf War Syndrome" (GWS).
The answer, on display in the June 5, New England Journal of Medicine, is essentially: "For the same reason the media have yet to seriously investigate UFO abductions — there’s no such thing."
This was just the latest in a long series of studies of Gulf vets and their offspring showing they have no exceptional rate of illness or deaths.
Specifically, it reviewed the records of more than 75,000 newborns from 1991 through 1993. It found the number of birth defects among war veterans’ children was identical to that among the babies of vets who didn’t deploy to the Gulf. It was also virtually the same as the risk among civilians.
Contrast that with earlier magazine article titles such as "Gulf Syndrome Kills Babies," Life magazine’s prize-winning cover story "The Tiny Victims of Desert Storm," and the claims of demagogues like Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D.-W.Va.) that when the vets came back "all of the sudden their children are [born] defective."
The explanation for this so-called "mystery" of GWS is damningly simple.
Seven hundred thousand men and women served in the Gulf during the war, with an additional 300,000 since. Add their spouses and children, and you have a group of over 1.5 million people. With a population that large, after five years you’re going to find virtually every disease known.
You’ll have a certain number of heart attacks, of cancers, of birth defects, of miscarriages, and of deaths.
The question is: Do these people have higher rates than you would expect in a group this size and with these demographic characteristics? And the answer, time and again, has been "no." As a group, they are at least as healthy as should be expected.
The media will try desperately to locate the exceptionally ill person and then zero in on him or her like a smart bomb or guided missile.
Of course, within that huge number there will be some extremely ill persons, and the media zero in on them like a smart bomb. Who cares what all the studies say? Who cares that five national panels now have essentially said there’s no such thing as GWS?
Just find a handful of vets or their wives who are ill and who will swear their illness is related to the Gulf, and there’s your story.
Sometimes the illnesses are real; there’s just no reason to think they’re Gulf-related. Over 100 symptoms have been attributed to this so-called syndrome, including such things as hair loss, graying hair, weight gain, and weight loss. The Department of Veterans Affairs repeatedly gets calls from vets’ wives claiming their babies’ diaper rashes and earaches stem from GWS.
Even herpes has been labeled GWS. Fancy that. If a non-vet gets herpes, he slept with the wrong woman. If a Gulf vet gets it, it’s GWS.
Sometimes the illnesses are not even real, but the media just don’t care. Kate McKenna herself, in a previous article in Playboy, wrote about a GWS affliction she called "shooting fire," in which the vet’s semen allegedly burns and blisters his mate’s skin. So has Pulitzer Prize-winning Gannett writer John Hanchette and his colleague, Norm Brewer.
It’s a great story, but like Elvis sightings it’s one that’s told and retold but never verified. Sure, there are people who have allergic reactions to semen. But ejaculate that can strip a car’s paint coat down to the primer? Uh-uh. It’s just an urban legend.
Likewise, McKenna has helped build one vet, Brian Martin, into the media’s favorite GWS victim/expert. She informed Playboy’s readers that in addition to "shooting fire," he suffers from "a diarrhetic condition that has damaged his spine." Unless he threw his back out while running for the toilet, there just ain’t no such thing.
On the other hand, McKenna decided not to tell her readers what Martin tells any reporter who calls — and even told Congress. He claims that for ten months after the war, during physical training, he would throw up glowing vomit "every day" and be rushed in an ambulance to the hospital to have IV tubes put in his arms.
Glowing vomit? Being forced to do exercise that sent him to the hospital every day for 10 months?
But this is how GWS, or what I call "Gulf Lore Syndrome," is perpetrated. McKenna, Hanchette, Brewer, 60 Minutes’s Ed Bradley (all of whom have relied on Martin as a witness) and literally hundreds of other journalists eschew all scientific evidence in favor of heart-tugging anecdotes and uncorroborated claims.
They’ve published reams of material on what could be the cause of GWS — ranging from pills to insecticides to nerve gas to (and this was Hanchette’s contribution) Scud missile fuel — all without establishing that there is a GWS in the first place. It’s like trying to figure out who assassinated President George Bush.
It might be funny, save for the hundreds of thousands of vets out there who served their nation in its hour of need who, along with their spouses, are needlessly living in fear of some horrible, mysterious illness.
That’s the story the AJR should have run. Instead, stay tuned for a 6,000 word piece from Kate McKenna on why the media have ignored the epidemic of women being impregnated by extra-terrestrials.