Veteran deals with aftereffects of Gulf War

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In 1991, Duluthian John Marshall was serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq as a part of Operation Desert Shield. To protect him from chemical weapons, the army gave him pyridostigmine bromide (PB) pills. Saddam Hussein's troops set fire to oil wells and Marshall breathed the toxic air. Pesticides were sprayed around the area. It wasn't until after he returned home from the war that all the exposure to chemicals caught up with him.

Marshall is one of approximately 175,000 to 210,000 veterans afflicted with Gulf War illness, out of 697,000 who served in the war. January marks the 25th anniversary of the conflict.

John Marshall served as a noncommissioned officer during the war. He enlisted shortly after graduating from Central High School in 1988.

"I planned to be a career soldier. That was always my plan," he said.

Unfortunately, when Marshall returned home from the Gulf, he started developing multiple illnesses and had a bout with Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was treated for the cancer, then released from the army in 1992. He didn't learn about Gulf War illness until 1994.

The illness, also known as Gulf War syndrome, is difficult to categorize. Veterans have a variety of multiple symptoms including persistent memory and concentration problems, chronic headaches, widespread pain, gastrointestinal problems, skin conditions, fatigue and/or terminal tumors.

Dr. Eric Gutscher, a doctor of internal medicine at the Twin Ports VA Clinic, said, "There's a huge number of symptoms. There's a specialty unit out in New Jersey where we can send the veterans and they do further evaluations because there are so many different symptoms."

In Marshall's case the conditions have changed over time. When he was first diagnosed he had headaches, high blood pressure, rashes, neurological problems and widespread nerve and joint pain.

"Basically, I came back to Duluth and I'm getting sick all the time and losing weight. I'm going to the VA in the Cities once a week and seeing Dr. Gunderson in Superior at least once a month. And I'm not getting better, just developing different symptoms," Marshall said.

In 1994, Marshall's doctor at Veterans Affairs Superior heard about the the Gulf War illness study in Washington D.C. and recommended that Marshall go get tested.

"I went through a whole battery of tests. I mean, they did everything you can imagine: pulmonary, cardiac, neurological and blood tests. It was pretty strenuous and intense," Marshall said. "My test results are all out of whack."

Marshall was prescribed medications to treat his various conditions. At one point he was on 19 different medications. But like the thousands of other veterans with the syndrome, he is still uncertain what caused his illness.

"The difficulty with Gulf War illness is that we can't point to one specific thing that causes it, so far. There were so many different things these guys were exposed to that could cause some of the symptoms," said Gutscher.

A 2008 report by the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs suggests that, although the specific causes of the illness are not determined, "two neurotoxic exposures are causally associated with Gulf War illness: the use of pyridostigmine bromide (PB) pills, given to protect troops from effects of nerve agents, and pesticide use during deployment."

Marshall remembers having to take the PB pills while preparing to invade Iraq. As a noncommissioned officer, Marshall was ordered to ensure his men take the pills.

"We were taking these pills for a while and a lot of these guys are getting really sick. They're throwing up and having diarrhea," Marshall said.

Marshall later chose to not take the pills. He said he believes the pills are largely what affected his nervous system.

Other factors commonly thought to contribute to Gulf War illness include low-level exposure to chemical weapons, close proximity to oil well fires, multiple vaccinations and depleted uranium. According to the 2008 report, these exposures "cannot be ruled out" but "the evidence is inconsistent or limited in important ways."

However, John Marshall says he thinks exposure to depleted uranium had an impact to his illness. He was one of the first 80 Gulf War soldiers in the nation who were asked to be part of a study on the effects of depleted uranium by the VA in Baltimore. He returns to the clinic every two years for tests.

"When it first kicked off, I refused [to be part of the study] because I was pretty angry and bitter with the government at the time. I don't know if the shrapnel in my back is depleted uranium or not. I'm going to say that it's probably not, but being so close to it, the inhalation and ingestion can be bad," Marshall said.

Marshall was hit with shrapnel from friendly fire on Feb. 27, 1991 during the battle of Norfolk. His injury forced him to be sent from the battlefield early.

Today, Marshall is not as affected by his symptoms of Gulf War illness. The number of medications he takes on a daily basis has lowered from 19 to 10. He is medically retired, but spends most of his time serving on or in 26 different organizations, boards and task forces. He is Captain of the Honor Guard, involved with the VFW, Legion, AAD Shrine, Military Purple Heart, the Veterans Memorial Hall Advisory committee, Blue Masonic Lodge and Scottish Rite Temple.

"I can only do so much because there are still some days where my body shuts down. But if I feel awful, I can curl up on the couch and take my pain pills," Marshall said. "But I do what I can. I serve my god, my fellow man and my community. That's how I live my life. And I do what I do to perpetuate the memories of the nine men that we lost in our unit in the Gulf."

John Marshall will speak about his experiences in the Gulf War at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 23 for the Veterans' Memorial Hall History in a Pint program. The talk will be at Carmody's Irish Pub, 308 E. Superior St.