Defense Department officials presented a 385-page review of scientific literature on the drug Pyrodistigmine Bromide (PB) at a news conference Tuesday.
The report is written in cautious scientific language but the bottom line is, for the first time, the Pentagon is admitting the possibility of a link between PB given to the troops and the rash of flu-like symptoms which have afflicted tens of thousands of Gulf War veterans.
For Barry Kapplan, the nine years since he was a young army officer in the Persian Gulf War have been a medical nightmare. "Dizziness, memory loss, visual field loss," he explains. "It's a daily basis that I deal with these things."
These days, he's out of the Army, can't hold a job and can't even be a good father at times. "I can't do the things that a 41-42 year-old father would be doing with his four children."
About 250,000 American soldiers were given PB just before the start of the Gulf War to protect them from, or at least give them a better chance of surviving, a deadly nerve gas attack. Kapplan, who was given the pill, says, "These were the magical nerve agent antidote pills that were going to fix everything except the lack of beer in theater."
But after years of assuring veterans PB was safe, the Pentagon now admits it can't rule out a possible connection to what has come to be called Gulf War Syndrome. New research on animals has produced evidence that stress can cause PB to cross from the blood stream and into the brain where it can produce symptoms identical to the maladies described by some veterans.
According to Beatrice Alexandra Golomb of Rand Corp., the California think tank that prepared the study, "PB acts on a chemical in the nervous system that is known to regulate sleep, pain, muscle action, mood and cognitive function."
She says that more research needs to be done and done quickly. Right now PB is the only defense against an attack by a particularly deadly form of nerve gas known as Soman.
Dr. Sue Bailey, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, said PB is still considered an invaluable tool against poison gas and will continue to be used. "[It] is incredibly lethal. The department's aware that they may lose 100 percent of their troops if they in fact encounter a nerve agent like Soman on the battlefield," she says.
Bailey reports that PB has not been given to the troops since the Gulf War and despite the doubts raised by the study, she would prescribe it again. "I'm willing to take that risk if in fact on the battlefield our troops can die from one deep breath and we can protect them with a pre-treatment like Pyrodistigmine, it's no contest," she explains.
Pentagon officials say that fronow on, they will have to see convincing intelligence the enemy is about to use Soman before they order the troops to take PB. Whether the troops will obey is another question.