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In a conference room at the Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, N.C., Melanie Ayers is addressing a support group for parents of Gulf War babies. "Sometimes," she says, "I wish I'd gone into a corner and stayed naive." Pixie-faced and preternaturally energetic, Ayers, 30, dates her loss of innocence to November 1993, when her five-month-old son died of congestive heart failure. Michael, who was conceived after his father, Glenn, returned from action as a battery commander in the Gulf, sweated constantly--until the night he woke up screaming, his arms and legs ice-cold. His previously undetected mitral-valve defect cost him his life.

After Michael's death, Melanie sealed off his bedroom; she tried to close herself off as well. But soon she began to encounter "a shocking number" of other parents whose post-Gulf War children had been born with abnormalities. All of them were desperate to know what had gone wrong and whether they would ever again be able to bear healthy babies. With Kim Sullivan, an artillery captain's wife whose infant son, Matthew, had died of a rare liver cancer, Melanie founded an informal network of fellow sufferers.

Surrounded by framed photos of decorated medics and nurses, a dozen of those moms and dads have come to share their worries, anger and grief. Kim is here. So is Connie Hanson, wife of an Army sergeant; her son, Jayce, was born with multiple deformities. Army Sgt. John Mabus has brought along his babies, Zachary and Andrew, who suffer from an incomplete fusion of the skull. The people in this room have turned to one another because they can no longer rely upon the military.
"Everything we hoped for just crashed. Why us? Why Cedrick?" -BIANCA MILLER
"A lot of the parents have had anxieties about coming forth with their concerns," says Dr. Sharon Cooper, the Womack Center's director of pediatrics. Cooper is one military official who, rather than taking an adversarial stance, is dedicated to helping Gulf veterans and their families cope. Many vets speak of Army physicians who dismiss physical ailments as symptoms of stress, even as fabrication. They cite an internal report by the National Guard, leaked to the press last year, which revealed that hundreds of Gulf vets had been wrongly discharged as a money-saving measure--let go with a supposedly clean bill of health, although ongoing medical problems entitled them to remain in the service for treatment. A second report, issued by the GAO earlier this year, scores the Veterans Administration for being routinely tardy with its payments to ailing vets. "When you send a veteran off to do dangerous work, I think his complaints deserve respect," says West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller. "The phrase I've used is 'reckless disregard.' There's a stark pattern of Defense Department recklessness."

For vets with afflicted babies, the runaround can be just as bad. Military doctors often ignore signs of inborn disorders, say Gulf War parents, or refuse to discuss them frankly. And when they do talk about birth defects, the doctors--and Pentagon bureaucrats--are quick to cite a statistic that drives these parents wild: At least 3 percent of American babies are born with abnormalities. To which Melanie Ayers responds: "I'd like to put my child's picture in front of them and say, 'Glance at that once in a while to make sure you're telling me the truth.'"

His five-year-old sister, Larissa, must be careful when they play together: A fall could dislodge the shunt in his head and lead to brain damage. Cedrick's handicaps have left his parents, Steve and Bianca, terrified of having more children.
Indeed, the truth may not be as simple as "at least three percent" implies. On a blazing Saturday afternoon, flanked by his parents, three-year-old Cedrick Miller is dangling his feet in an apartment-complex pool in San Antonio. Flossy-haired and shy, he looks younger than his age. Cedrick was born with his trachea and esophagus fused; despite surgery, his inability to hold down solid food has kept his weight to 20 pounds. His internal problems include hydrocephalus and a heart in the wrong place. But it's clear from one look that something else is awry.

Cedrick suffers, like Casey Minns, from Goldenhar's syndrome. The left half of his face is shrunken, with a missing ear and a blind eye. His mother, Bianca, says that when a prenatal exam showed the defects, "everything we'd hoped for just crashed. What had Cedrick done to deserve this?"

Steve Miller, a former Army medic, thinks chemicals damaged his sperm. He believes statistical evidence is at hand. "With Goldenhar's," he says, "we have clustering."
"There's a stark pattern of Defense Department recklessness." -SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER
Jayce can feed himself marshmellows.
Clustering is the term epidemiologists use when an ailment strikes one group of people more than others--and the phenomenon can be a key indicator that something more than chance is causing birth defects. The Association of Birth Defect Children says it has found the first cluster of defects in the offspring of U.S. Gulf veterans: 10 babies with severe Goldenhar's syndrome, a condition that usually strikes one in 26,000, according to ABDC executive director Betty Mekdeci. (Another case has surfaced in Britain, where 600 vets complain of Gulf-related illness.) The ABDC, which has gathered data on 163 ailing Gulf War babies so far, is tracking four more possible clusters--of victims of hypoplastic left heart syndrome, of atrial-septal heart defect, of microcephaly and of immune-system deficiencies. Significantly, not one of the parents in the ABDC survey has a family history of these types of birth defects. Or as Mekdeci puts it, "There have been no relatives with funny ears."

The difficulty in proving conclusively whether clusters are occurring is that no one--not Mekdeci, not the Pentagon--knows how many babies have been born to Gulf vets. The Defense Department's own survey of 40,000 birth outcomes, initial results of which are due in late October, is the largest study yet, but far from complete since it relies on data only from military hospitals. The Pentagon's Dr. Joseph says the forthcoming report will include "by far the best and most comprehensive information available." Maybe it will, but many still question whether Defense Department scientists are really seeking the hard answers. Earlier this year Dr. Joseph told LIFE that, although trained as a pediatrician, he was entirely unfamiliar with "Goldhavers or Gold Heart--whatever." It's precisely that kind of response that enrages veterans with afflicted babies.

Along with the ABDC and Defense Department surveys, more than 30 other studies of Gulf vets and their children are under way. One that is no longer ongoing, by the Senate Banking Committee, folded last year when committee chair Don Riegle retired. Of the 400 sick vets who had already answered committee inquiries, a startling 65 percent reported birth defects or immune-system problems in children conceived after the war. (more)
.....Poison in the Air: Were Nerve and Mustard Gases Present, After All?

In 1975, a landmark Swedish study concluded that low-level exposure to nerve and mustard gases could cause both chronic illness and birth defects. The Pentagon denies the presence of such chemicals during the Gulf War.

But Czech and British governments say their troops detected both kinds of gas, presumably released during allied bombing of Iraqi chemical plants. And veterans' advocate Paul Sullivan recently obtained 11 pages of a secret Defense Department log revealing that U.S. chemical alarms went off repeatedly during the war. Pentagon spokesmen blame those alarms on faulty equipment and note there have been no reports of massive Iraqi gas deaths near the bombed factories.

But former congressional investigator Jim Tuite speculates that gases were blown straight upward, then settled miles away as fallout. And, he says, Iraqis are suffering health problems "similar to what we're seeing in our veterans."

Ironically, much of Iraq's chemical arsenal was made by U.S. companies–80 of which face a class-action suit by 2,000 ailing vets.

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