Todd Sanders and his wife, Paula. Times-News photo.
KINGSPORT — Todd Sanders says he and thousands of other Gulf War veterans may be running out of time to live.
Sanders believes that’s because of the mandatory anthrax vaccine he and others received in the Army.
Late last year, at age 41, the Kingsport resident had a pacemaker installed to keep his heart rate and blood pressure up, but he still blacks out from low blood pressure from a condition called sinus bradycardia neurocardiogenic syncope.
His other medical problems include chronic fatigue, neurological symptoms, muscle deterioration, memory loss, ringing in the ears, double vision, confusion, depression, anxiety, incontinence, sleep apnea, respiratory distress, and extreme muscle and joint pain.
Sanders’ medical condition, however, has not been diagnosed as an illness related to his military service, so he does not receive any financial compensation for his illness. Sanders, a master auto mechanic who can no longer work, has not been able to obtain unemployment pay, military disability or Social Security disability, and this has put a severe financial hardship on his family.
Sanders is now seeking letters of support from veterans who have similar symptoms and received the anthrax vaccine.
He’s asking that anyone with past military service with similar medical issues fill out a Veterans Affairs Form No. 21-4138 — Statement in Support of Claim. The form is available at www.vba.va.gov/pubs/forms/vba-21-4138.pdf.
Enough of those letters, according to Sanders and spokesmen for the military and VA, might convince the VA hospital system that his condition is related to his military service and open the door to receiving free health care from the VA system, including the Mountain Home Medical Center in Johnson City.
Sanders is an ASA master technician, General Motors master technician and Chrysler master technician.
“Days that I can do a little bit, I will,” Sanders said.
He has worked as a mechanic, for nine years at the old Sherwood Chevrolet in Johnson City, about five years at Courtesy Chevrolet in Kingsport, and almost four years at Carl Gregory Chrysler-Plymouth in Johnson City.
“You very seldom find somebody who would work as hard as he would,” said Keith Cutshall, who has known Sanders for 14 years.
“He’s just a good person,” Cutshall said. “It’s just a shame to see him going through this and can’t get any help.”
James Johnson, a serviceman at Carl Gregory who has known Sanders for 13 years said, “He’s very meticulous. He’s always done top-quality work.”
“He would be working on a car, kind of get a dizzy feeling and go over to his toolbox. The next thing you knew, he was sliding down his toolbox to the floor,” Johnson said.
Sanders’ doctors ordered him to stop working Jan. 26.
A neurologist is trying to find out what is causing this latest round of blackouts.
“The co-pays and deductibles we’ve been paying are overwhelming,” Sanders’ wife, Paula, said.
Johnson said the physical toll, however, was even greater.
“You could watch him deteriorate over time. You could see it happen.”
High school sweethearts, Todd and Paula Sanders attended North High School. They have been married 23 years and have a daughter, Tasha, who is a full-time nursing student who works at Holston Valley Medical Center.
Paula Sanders has worked in the snack distribution business and now works for Unilever in retail sales.
While Sanders believes he may have or be getting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, at least he is still among the living. The Internet is full of stories about Gulf War veterans who have died well after the war.
“Everybody he tried to find in his brigade, either he can’t find them or they’re dead,” Paula Sanders said.
Parallel stories told
Bill Robertson, one of Todd Sanders’ best Army buddies from Georgia who also served in the 3rd Infantry Division during Desert Storm, is among those already dead from what Sanders and others believe is Gulf War Syndrome. Sanders contacted his friend about a year and a half ago.
“Every single symptom Bill Robertson had, my husband had — every single one,” Paula Sanders said.
Robertson, who died in late December and had ALS, told Sanders he believed his condition was caused by the anthrax vaccine.
“That’s what they figure with me — I’ve either got multiple sclerosis or ALS,” Sanders said.
Robertson was deployed to Iraq, while Sanders stayed in Germany.
However, Sanders said both received the vaccine. He said they also were exposed to depleted uranium the military used to strengthen armor, chemicals used by the military and whatever else was in the environment of Iraq.
A recent study that received worldwide attention said that Iraqi munitions American troops destroyed had sarin, a nerve gas that could be causing or aggravating Gulf War Syndrome.
Sanders said he and Robertson may have gotten that exposure from military vehicles — Robertson from serving in Iraq and Sanders in Germany from cleaning vehicles used in Iraq.
But Sanders said he believes — and that Robertson believed — their condition was caused by the anthrax vaccine, which made him sick and almost caused him to pass out when he first received it.
Sanders said he believes the squalene — used to make the immune system quickly develop immunity — in too large doses make the immune system attack itself. The approval of that anthrax vaccine, which is no longer used, was expedited by the Food and Drug Administration.
“I started getting insomnia, joint pain and soreness immediately,” Sanders said.
He continued his military service, started in 1987, until a discharge in 1992. And although he had some times with few symptoms, he said his energy and strength never went back to pre-vaccine levels.
Sanders was able to work for years, but he said things got quickly and progressively worse starting in 2001. And he began having blackouts.
Stories nationwide and worldwide abound of veterans with similar health ills, including British soldiers who report similar problems getting their government to recognize the connection between their condition and military service.
But Paula Sanders said she and her husband take some comfort in the outcome of a 21-year-old soldier’s recent success in getting his heart problem disability — and plans to install a pacemaker — recognized as service related by a military discharge board.
David Brace, the 21-year-old soldier, received a newer anthrax vaccine that is supposed to be safer.
The Brace and Sanders families, along with Dr. Meryle Nass of Bar Harbor, Maine, have been communicating over the Internet about common threads in various cases nationwide. Nass in late July testified at a hearing of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Subcommittee on Health.
Nass said Gulf War Syndrome symptoms overlap closely with chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, multiple chemical sensitivity and irritable bowel syndrome.
Sanders said about 700,000 soldiers received the anthrax vaccine in the first Gulf War, with more than 1 million receiving a later version of the anthrax vaccine.
Nass said 200,000 “Gulf War I” veterans have chronic “Gulf War” illness related to their deployment and cited a Washington Post article that said 199,000 Gulf War veterans receive compensation for such illnesses. But Sanders is not among the 199,000.
Sanders on a new mission
Blackouts or not, with the help of his wife, Todd Sanders’ new full-time mission is trying to get the word out to other Gulf War veterans. And to get the support letters from veterans who have similar symptoms and received the anthrax vaccine.
But one problem that Sanders and others who served from 1987 to 1992 face is a lack of medical records. Working through the office of U.S. Rep. David Davis, R-1st District, Sanders was able to get copies of his military entry and exit physical exams.
Everything else, including the record of his anthrax and other vaccines received while in service, are gone. He said a VA official once told him they were “inadvertently destroyed.”
In a nutshell, Washington, D.C.-based Veterans Affairs spokesman Jim Benson and Northern Virginia-based Department of Defense spokesman Terry Jones said veterans seeking full VA health care must show their injury, illness or disability is connected to their military service.
They said the letters of support can help Sanders.
However, Benson and Jones also said they were not aware of a mass loss or destroying of records from the Gulf War era, although Sanders said they have been told by VA officials and others that medical records went missing for many who served in the Gulf War.
As for Todd Sanders’ claim, Jones said he would contact folks in the DOD in an attempt to help find Sanders’ medical records. And although he’s never met or talked with Sanders, he did have a friend who served in the Gulf War.
“He said there was something to it,” Jones said of aftereffects of the war. “He did eventually die.”
Cathy Brace, the mother of the 21-year-old veteran with heart problems, recently wrote that the problem with vaccine records that do exist is that they bear the date of when the vaccine was recorded, not when it was actually given, although Jones said he never heard of that happening.
One other option to get some VA medical care is based on income levels, but the Sanderses made too much last year. However, with Todd having almost no income this year, Paula said he may be eligible next year. They have been turned down twice this year and their appeal denied for income-based VA assistance.
Sanders plans for future
Sanders said if he can convince the federal government his condition is related to his military service and get some civilian and/or military disability, his goal is to work on behalf of other veterans with Gulf War Syndrome.
“Once we get ours done, I think we’ll be able to help people a whole lot,” Sanders said.
Lori Cutshall, wife of Keith Cutshall and a friend of the Sanderses who attends church with them at Christ Fellowship, has helped set up an account for donations to help pay for his medical care.
Donations, which are tax deductible, can be sent to Christ Fellowship Church, attention Melinda Williams, 260 Victory Lane, Kingsport, TN 37664. The memo line of checks should be filled out “Todd and Paula Sanders.” For more information call the church at 349-0600.
To contact Sanders call 247-1987 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.