June 10th, 20008. Veterans Association
"This is my workplace now. I communicate with comrades around the country from here." National Gulf Veterans and Families Association (NGV&FA) president Shawn Rusling (41) spreads his arms to indicate a small room in the attic of his house.
With the computer, printer, letters from everywhere, documents, and books covering his handmade desk and walls, Rusling's large body makes the room look even smaller. "I even have one of these." He gestures toward a wide sofa near the entrance. He has already told me that he has to lie down four or five times a day.
He left Hull City, England, to serve in the
1991 Gulf War as a medical technician in
the Territorial Army. He was stationed in
northern Saudi Arabia, where he treated Iraqi
soldiers, who were exposed to more depleted
uranium (DU) than British soldiers. After
returning home, he suffered from intense
fatigue and severe joint pain in his legs.
In 1996, these symptoms forced him to quit
"Just about that time there was a move to start an association. A retired major living near Manchester sounded the call, and, with him as president, we began with ten members."
Like their US counterparts, British veterans at first suffered their various illnesses in isolation. In fact, the UK has no system of Veterans Administration hospitals, so Gulf War veterans and their families sought help from public hospitals where they had little chance of meeting each other.
"It's just been individual to individual.
We have grown this far strictly from personal
connections," says Rusling. At this
point, they have 2,200 members throughout
Great Britain. "We keep women who have
lost their husbands on as members, and we
still get three or four new members a week.
On the other hand," his voice drops,
"at least two members die every month."
The purpose of the Association, in addition to mutual support for members, is to pursue three demands: 1) government recognition of illnesses caused by the Gulf War, 2) provision of appropriate treatment at government expense, and 3) swift payment of war pensions to those who were injured or became ill as a result of their military service.
Of the 53,000 soldiers sent to the Middle East during the Gulf War, about 30,000 served in combat areas. Of those, about 6,000 are suffering serious health problems, and about 3,000 are receiving war pensions. By the end of April 2000, approximately 500 had died.
"With the passage of time, our illnesses get worse. The founder and first president of the Association and the second president both were forced to resign because of failing health. I was elected as the third president, but my condition, too, keeps declining. I can only manage the work because of the help I get from my wife."
He married Maria (30) four years ago. She works for an insurance company. Maria supports him economically, and on weekends she helps him with this work.
Rusling and other members of the Association have often approached the Ministry of Defence seeking recognition of the illness and treatment. The request invariably is met with icy rejection.
"All I can think is that the government
is trying to avoid the truth and is waiting
for us to die." The Association members
have expressed their disappointment and anger
by returning the medals of honor they received
in recognition of outstanding service in
the Gulf War.
"We intend to trade information and strengthen cooperation with American and Canadian veterans and with Iraqis, who we hear have suffered even greater harm. Those of us who are suffering have to keep sending our message to the world. If we can just get more people demanding a ban on DU munitions..."
Even as their lives ebb day by day, Rusling
and the British Gulf War veterans remain
passionate and determined.
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