Stranger Than Fiction
John Nichol was shot down and captured in the Gulf War. Then he learned that his suffering was mild compared with what other veterans were having to endure. Now he has written their story - as a novel.
Six and a half years ago I walked out of a cell in Baghdad; after 49 days as a Prisoner of War I was free, my war was over. As the country waved Union Flags troops marched through the streets of London in celebration of a stunning victory over an evil dictator. But for thousands of Gulf War Veterans the suffering had just begun. As swords were sheathed and the ticker-tape was consigned to dustbins Gulf Veterans began to complain of mysterious illnesses and diseases that the Ministry of Defence has claimed for years do not exist.
For most it started with lethargy moving quickly through irrational mood swings to severe fatigue and muscle wasting. I spoke to one veteran who used to run marathons. Newcastle born medic John Brown served with the infantry during Desert Storm, he saw plenty of active service including treating the casualties at the notorious 'friendly fire' incident which cost several British soldiers' lives. When he returned from The Gulf he spent months in a military hospital with unexplainable chest infections, he was medically discharged from the Army and can now only walk a few hundred yards without becoming breathless. At the age of twenty eight he was told by his doctor that he would never be fit enough to work again.
When I first met the Veterans Groups I was sceptical about their claims; surely they must be mistaken or exaggerating the stories? Within hours of my first visit, I was convinced that not only were they genuine, but that they had been abandoned by the very government that had sent them to war.
Larry Cammock left the army in I974, sixteen years later a policeman knocked at his door in Newcastle to inform him he was being called up under the National Service Act. A train journey later he arrived at a military reception centre in London to be told that, at the age of 45, he was going to war. Larry returned home, said goodbye to his wife and children, and flew out to the Gulf. Within three days he had had in excess of eighteen inoculations, most of which went unrecorded, a few of which were secret. He was asleep in his tent one night when a medic unzipped his sleeping bag and injected him in his arm. "What the hell was that?" he yelled, the medic looked at him and replied "you don't want to know mate." Larry returned from the war a shadow of his former self; he has violent mood swings, sleeps little and his memory has all but gone; a keen gardener he has difficulty recalling the names of his favourite plants.
But it is not just the veterans themselves who are suffering, many believe that Gulf War Syndrome is responsible for horrendous birth defects in their children. One American veteran's son was born with Goldenhar's Syndrome, a non-hereditary birth defect that can be caused by exposure to environmental toxins. When Casey was born his face was lopsided and he had an ear missing, seven hours later doctors discovered that many of his internal organs were not connected. He is now kept alive by being hooked up to a feeding tube 18 hours a day. As he has no functioning colon his mother has to suction his body wastes through another tube 10 times a day. It could be claimed that this case is unique, however Hilary Meredith, the veterans’ solicitor, says that of the 1300 veterans she represents 60 have children with birth defects. Some troops in Germany were warned not to conceive any children for at least 12 months after their injections for the Gulf.
Many veterans have died; estimates vary but the Veterans Association says that some one hundred and forty of their number, with an average age of thirty, have died since the end of the war. Hilary Merideth says, "So far twenty eight of my own clients have died, several have been told that they will be dead in a few months. How many more have to die? "
I sat with the group for about six hours at first incredulous then increasingly spellbound by their stories, for the first time someone was willing to listen to them. The hardest thing to bear for these men and women was the fact that they felt the country had ignored their sacrifice and turned its back on them and their families. For years their claims had been arrogantly rejected by the Government, they had been told they were liars and malingerers simply "trying it on" in an effort to get some compensation.
Then, piece by piece, their stories were confirmed. For five years the veterans had been telling the MOD that organophosphate pesticides had been used in the Gulf, for five years the MOD had said the veterans were either mistaken or lying. In December last year, the Armed Forces Minister Nicholas Soames, was forced to concede that it was the MOD who had been mistaken or lying. What action was taken against the offending officer? He was 'reprimanded' for misleading Parliament. He still has his job, still has a salary in excess of £60,000 per year and, more importantly, he still has his health.
Only this week it was revealed that Department of Health warnings about the cocktail of drugs being given to troops had been ignored. In the supposed 'fog of war' which surrounded the clubs and bars of Whitehall, a memo detailing the dangers of multiple vaccines was logged and then forgotten. It warned, "when vaccines are combined, there is evidence of severe loss of condition and weight loss"; the very symptoms that the veterans display yet those in authority refuse to acknowledge.
While those of us fighting in the Gulf were being shot at and dying, MOD officials were losing faxes because of the pressures of war. If someone had made it up it would be hard to believe.
I decided to write Vanishing Point as fiction because the facts were just too incredible; veterans claimed their mail had been opened and phones tapped. One campaigner's wife was offered money by the security services to inform on other veteran's groups. In one bizarre episode John Parker, who was a driver in the frontline during the war, fought for four years to get access to his medical record, in desperation he resorted to the courts and they were finally handed over. Unbelievably the section dealing with his Gulf service had been wiped clean, even details of inoculations given for his subsequent service in Bosnia were missing. The more I heard the more I became interested; the revelations would not have been out of place coming from a tin-pot dictatorship.
Somebody had something to hide and it would make a great plot for a novel; I decided to take many of the accounts I had heard and mould them into a thriller. Of course the danger is that I could be accused of cashing in on the veteran's suffering. I sent a copy of the new book to one of the guys who had told me his story, I received a letter from his wife. She wrote, "he was thrilled to see the book, I could see in his eyes that at last someone believes him."
So what is the climax of Vanishing Point? What secret is so horrific that the establishment would go to any lengths to protect itself? In the film 'A Few Good Men' Jack Nicholson's character, a US Marine Colonel, is in court justifying his actions over the death of one of his men. "It's because of people like me protecting your walls that you sleep safely at night, " he bellows, "but you can't handle the truth." I am convinced that someone, somewhere, knows the real truth about Gulf War Syndrome, when it is finally disclosed will it be too much to handle?