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During the past year, LIFE has conducted its own inquiry into the plight of these children. We sought to learn whether U.S. policies put them at risk and whether the nation ought to be doing more for them and their families. We also aimed to determine whether, as some scientists and veterans allege, the military's own investigation is deeply flawed.
Spina bifida cripples her legs. Her upper body is so weak that she can't push herself in a wheelchair on carpeting. To strengthen her bones, she spends hours in a contraption that holds her upright. Brothers Nathan (in tree) and Joey, both born before the war, are healthy. "The boys care a lot about Lea'," says her mom, Lisa. "Every time she goes to the hospital, their schoolwork suffers."
The future of this country's volunteer armed forces--institutions dependent on citizens' willingness to serve, and therefore on their trust--may rest on the answers to such questions. Certainly, soldiers expect to forfeit their health, if necessary, in the line of duty. But no one expects that of a soldier's kids.

Lea' Arnold was not born to a soldier, but she might as well have been: Her father went to the Gulf as a civilian helicopter mechanic with the Army's 1st Cavalry Division. On a Wednesday morning, Lea' lies naked in her parents' bed, in a small house off a gravel road in Belton, Tex. A nurse looms over her, brandishing a plastic hose.

"Don't hurt me," wails Lea.

"I'm not going to hurt you, sweetie," says the nurse. "You need to peepee."

As the nurse administers the catheter, Lisa Arnold--a sturdy woman who carries her sadness on broad shoulders--tells the story of her daughter's birth. "The doctor said, 'Well, she's got a little problem with her back.' They let me hold her for a minute, and then they took her to intensive care." Lea' had spina bifida, a split in the backbone that causes paralysis and hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. She needed surgery to remove three vertebrae. "They told us that if she lived the next 36 hours, she'd have a pretty good chance of surviving. Those 36 hours . . . it's kind of indescribable what that's like."
"[The veterans] need to keep the pressure on because...the companies who stand to be found liable will be in there lobbying" -ADM. ELMO ZUMWALT JR.
Just about our whole world is centered around Lea'," says Lisa Arnold. Huge medical bills--and the unwillingness of insurance companies to cover preexisting conditions-- force the family to live in poverty to qualify for Medicaid.
Three years later, Lea' has grown into a redhead like her mother, with the haunted face of a medieval martyr. She cannot move her legs or roll over. A shunt drains fluid from her skull. "She tells me every night that she wants to walk," says Richard Arnold, a soft-spoken ex-Marine.

Richard, who had fathered two healthy children before he went to war, was working for Lockheed in the Gulf. But he bunked in the desert with the troops--and that meant swallowing, inhaling and otherwise absorbing some very dicey stuff. According to a 1994 report by the General Accounting Office, American soldiers were exposed to 21 potential "reproductive toxicants," any of which might have harmed them as well as their future children. They used diesel fuel to keep down sand. They marched through smoke from burning oil wells. They doused themselves with bug sprays. They handled a toxic nerve-gas decontaminant, ethylene glycol monomethyl ether. They fired shells tipped with depleted uranium. Other teratogens--materials that cause birth defects--may have been present too. One possibility is that desert winds bore traces of Iraqi poison gas.
Some physicians who have treated Gulf vets believe they may be suffering from a general overload of chemical pollutants--and that their body fluids are actually toxic. (Indeed, many veterans' wives are sick; a few complain that their husbands' semen blisters their skin.) "It was a toxic environment," says Dr. Charles Jackson, staff physician for the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Tuskegee, Ala. Other doctors, while agreeing that chemicals or radiation may have caused birth defects, think the vets' ills came from a germ--an unknown Iraqi biological warfare agent, perhaps, or some form of leishmaniasis, a disease carried by sand flies.

Government scientists generally discount these theories. "The hard cold facts" are simply not there, says Dr. Robert Roswell, executive director of the Persian Gulf Veterans Coordinating Board. But one hypothesis elicits even his respect. "The one argument that does deserve further study [concerns] the combination of pyridostigmine bromide with pesticides."

Pyridostigmine bromide--or PB--is a drug usually prescribed to sufferers of myasthenia gravis, a degenerative nerve disease. But animal experiments have shown that pretreatment with PB may also provide some protection from the nerve gas soman. The U.S. military therefore gave the drug to most Americans in the Gulf. Darrell Clark, for instance, took it, and Richard Arnold--now racked with chronic joint pain--probably did: "I took everything the First Cavalry took." (more)
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