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Back in 1990, a few months before the bombs started dropping on Baghdad, an Army pal slipped me a Pentagon study based on World War II experiences estimating that U.S. forces would suffer 50,000 casualties during the projected six-month campaign. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s staff later predicted a still-staggering 20,000 dead or wounded. Because Stormin’ Norman’s forces brilliantly zapped Saddam Hussein’s mob in a record-breaking 100-hour ground war, actual U.S. casualties were a mere fraction of these two estimates – 147 Killed In Action and 457 Wounded In Action. At least at first look.

But within weeks after our warriors took off their boots and hung up their rifles, dozens, then hundreds, of Gulf War vets became casualties. And as the years tick by, this figure has already grown to tens of thousands.

It wasn’t bullets that took them down, but a casualty-producer the experts didn’t count on called Gulf War Illness. So far, according to an April 2002 Veterans Affairs report, an additional 7,758 Desert Storm vets have died, while 198,716 vets have filed claims for medical and compensation benefits. Of the claims filed, 156,031 have been granted as service-connected, with more vets being designated casualties as each day passes. The 198,716 figure represents a staggering 28 percent of the vets – 696,579 – who fought in the Gulf War conflict!

Former Tennessee National Guardsman Adam T. Smith, whose unit fought alongside the U.S. Army’s storied 1st Infantry Division during Desert Storm, says: “The American people seem to have forgotten or don’t know how sick many of us are and how the Department of Defense and Veterans Administration have given us the same runaround they gave Vietnam veterans. It’s a crime.” Totally disabled Smith adds, “Out of my 150-member unit, close to 70 are or have been treated for some sort of illness related to Gulf War service.”

For five years after the war, the Pentagon and the VA refused to admit that our troops had been exposed to chemical weapons, via the same sort of despicable delaying tactics our Vietnam vets were subjected to over their Agent Orange claims. For example, the Pentagon brass were unwilling to admit U.S. Army culpability in blowing up captured Iraqi chemical munitions that caused the biggest friendly fire incident in the history of warfare. To date, not only has no one responsible been punished – instead, in typical fashion, all those who were in charge have been either promoted or knighted.

After scores of studies costing more than $150 million, a definitive cause for Gulf War Illness has yet to be announced. Investigators and researchers have targeted a number of things, including: the unproven vaccines and drugs our troops were forced to take; the U.S. Depleted Uranium Munitions used against Iraqi armor that exposed our soldiers to radiation; pollution from the oil-well fires; local diseases; even the clouds that blew over our troops when captured Iraqi chemical-warfare weaponry was destroyed by Army engineers.

Gulf War vet Michael Woods, president of the National Gulf War Resource Center Inc., says VA Secretary Anthony Principi is hiding the truth by not releasing the up-to-date “death and disability” statistics on Gulf War veterans as required by law.

Woods tells me he’s concerned the VA is stonewalling because the unreleased casualty statistics could undermine the case for war that is being made by President George W. Bush and the noisy platoon of war hawks – who’ve never stood anywhere near a hot battlefield – pressing for an Iraqi “regime change” from the safety of their Washington bunkers. Woods’ organization is also adamant that our forces get the right protection and detection gear and the right training before we march back into Iraq.

“President Bush shouldn’t order our warriors into another Gulf fight until we know what happened 11 years ago,” says Robert McMahon, president of Soldiers for the Truth. “The VA needs to tell the truth regarding the suffering of thousands of vets.”

Before we commit to another Gulf War, our government must come clean on what happened to our Desert Storm heroes. Congress and our media must hound the president and the VA until they tell the nation what caused the enormous casualties in the first place, and what’s been done to reduce the hazards facing our troops this time around.

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