June 3rd, 20002. A Husband's Death
"This is the road where my husband and
I used to walk the dogs together." Julie
Means (39) speaks wistfully as she takes
long, brisk strides through the countryside
carpeted by lush green wheat fields. Wagging
their tails, her two dogs scamper excitedly
in the chilly wind. "When I think of
how badly he suffered before he died..."
Thirty minutes north from London's Kings Cross Station, I get off the train at the Hitchin Station and take a ten-minute taxi ride to the country house where Julie and Stephen once lived together.
"This is Stephen." Returning after our 20-minute walk, she opens an album in her living room. Stephen still lives in a photograph of himself standing with his gun in front of his tank in Iraqi territory. His thick-chested body appears strong and sturdy. That body had never known a significant health problem until he served with an army tank unit in 1991 in the Gulf War.
"During the war, he was constantly at the very front. One of his duties was to check for any soldiers that might still be alive in Iraqi tanks destroyed by depleted uranium (DU) shells. When he left Kuwait to enter Iraqi territory, he took the Highway of Death, where the worst of the fighting had been."
In October 1990, he was sent from the British
base in Germany, where he had been stationed,
to Saudi Arabia. He returned in mid-March
1991, about two weeks after the ground war
ended (February 28). Stephen had not known
Julie very long, but he used a leave to visit
and propose to her in Hitchin in early April.
They were married in August that year.
"After we were married, I took my four-year old son Mark and joined Stephen on the base in northern Germany. Stephen loved Mark like his own." The only shadow over those days of marital bliss was the chronic diarrhea Stephen picked up in the Middle East.
In October that year, Stephen turned 30. When he went in for a routine medical examination, he told the Army doctor about his symptoms. Running no tests to investigate the cause, the doctor casually answered, "It's because you smoke. Stop and it'll go away." Stephen, who had smoked for years without ever having diarrhea, complained vociferously about the doctor's lack of concern.
"My husband had handled DU in the tank unit, but all he knew about it was the name. He was told it was perfectly harmless, and he had no idea about any possible side effects from the medicine he took against chemical warfare."
Julie and Stephen returned to Hitchin in March 1993. Stephen worked as an instructor for the Territorial Army at the local army base. A year later, their daughter Roxanne (6) was born. As if to counter the joy of this event, Stephen's diarrhea worsened. By that time, he was also obviously suffering from chronic fatigue and an odd stiffening in the fingers.
In 1996, his condition deteriorated drastically. He became mentally unstable and almost totally unable to work. "We couldn't believe the army doctors, so we went to a private tropical disease expert. We even got an examination from a psychiatrist. He got more and more medicines but nothing was helping him."
Eventually, he couldn't even go to the bathroom by himself. Every joint in his body caused him pain. Then, in April 1999, he died of a heart attack three months after being discharged from military service. He was 37 years old.
Caring for her ill husband and her children
day after day, morning to night, Julie did
not learn about the many Gulf War veterans
suffering with illnesses like her husband's
until after he died. "There was even
a veterans association. After Stephen died,
I learned twelve other veterans died of heart
attacks that year."
On her husband's military pension of 1,000 pounds (about ・165,000), Julie's life is extremely austere. "I'd trade this money for my healthy, strong husband any day. The Ministry of Defence spends plenty of money on research to prove there is no relationship between the illnesses and DU or toxins they encountered. They spend nothing to take care of the veterans that got sick in the Gulf."
Julie is appealing directly to the Ministry of Defence, trying to push them to confront the problem of ailing veterans. She wants the Ministry "to find a treatment and make sure no more are sacrificed."
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