Todd Sanders, here with his wife, Paula, will now be able to receive disability and benefits after the federal government recently deemed Gulf War Syndrome real. Photo by Erica Yoon.
KINGSPORT — Gulf War veteran Todd Sanders and his family are looking forward to less uncertainty this holiday season than last year.
His blackouts, as recounted in a Kingsport Times-News article in August 2007, have grown worse, and he still has issues with short-term memory and getting too hot.
However, he qualified in September for Social Security disability almost two years after applying and 16 years after his military service, from 1987 to 1992, ended.
Sanders, age 42, believes he may be close to proving he has Gulf War Syndrome, something he’s believed for more than two years.
“We’re looking a lot better than we were the last time (the newspaper interviewed them),” said his wife, Paula Sanders.
And the disabled automobile mechanic said the biggest victory to date for him and others who served in the Gulf War in the early 1990s is that the federal government a few weeks ago acknowledged the existence of Gulf War Syndrome. Sanders hopes to prove next month he has the syndrome from his military service so he can receive military disability and Veterans Administration medical care for himself and his wife.
He likened the delay to the 20 years it took for the federal government to acknowledge the ill health effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam War veterans.
“They’ve (federal officials) finally acknowledged it,” Todd Sanders said during a recent interview. “Even though they’ve owned up to it ... you still have to prove your case.”
The Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illness compared the foot-dragging and denials to the treatment of earlier troops who claimed that they had been dangerously exposed to Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides in Vietnam and to radiation during World War II.
In both cases, the claims turned out to be true.
“There is also a common perception that federal policymakers have not vigorously pursued key research in this area and that federal agencies have disincentives — whether political or fiscal — for providing definitive answers to Gulf War health questions,” the report said.
Troops were exposed to a “toxic soup” of chemicals, the report found. However, they laid the blame for Gulf War illness primarily on two causes: pesticides sprayed on the troops during deployment and pyridostigmine bromide, an anti-nerve agent.
The small white pills hadn’t been approved for nerve agent protection at the time, but the Food and Drug Administration had given the military a temporary waiver for their use to protect troops in case they were exposed to nerve gas.
Sanders 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 said he believes it was a combination of both the pills and the anthrax vaccine, with exposure to nerve agents also a potential factor.
Sanders said he believes the squalene — used to make the immune system quickly develop immunity — in too large doses made the immune system attack itself. The approval of that anthrax vaccine, which is no longer used, was expedited by the FDA. Soldiers in the Iraq War haven’t received it.
Sanders and his wife head to Washington, D.C., next month for a trial that will determine if he gets military disability.
“My spirits are up. Physically, I’ve gone downhill,” Sanders said.
Dr. Meryl Nass, a doctor in Bar Harbor, Maine, in October diagnosed Sanders with Gulf War Syndrome, but the couple said a local doctor once shouted at them to leave his office, saying he received the vaccinations and pills for his own good and he simply was trying to milk the government for money.
Three months ago a cardiologist checking his pacemaker, which he received at age 40, told him his heart condition has worsened.
The couple’s daughter, Tasha, was in nursing school when her father was first seeking disability and helped care for him. Today, she is a nurse in the cardiac intensive care unit at Holston Valley Medical Center.
Sanders is hoping for at least 70 percent military-related disability or maybe even 100 percent, based on his condition, but if he reaches at least 30 percent disability he and his wife will receive VA medical care.
Otherwise, he will lose his VA medical benefits at year’s end and depend solely on his wife’s health insurance, although he can appeal the December decision.
“They would have to give him medical benefits no matter what our income,” Paula Sanders said of a ruling of at least 30 percent military-related disability.
With her income from working in retail for Unilever, the two paid $14,000 in out-of-pocket expenses for health care.
As an automobile mechanic, Todd Sanders used to make three times what Paula did, and they said his disability is about a fourth of his former income.
“We’ve been living literally by faith every month,” Paula said.
The couple said they wanted to thank people who prayed for them and folks at their church, Christ Fellowship in Kingsport.
They also said they want to thank the office of U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. His staff contacted the Veterans Administration and military on Todd Sanders’ behalf, Paula Sanders said.
The couple aren’t seeking donations for his medical care any more, but they still need veterans who served during the Gulf War time frame who received the shots and pills to fill out a form to support his claim.
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 Gulf War, with more than 1 million receiving a later version of the anthrax vaccine.
Nass last year 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.
The form is Veterans Affairs Form No. 21-4138 — Statement in Support of Claim. It is available at http://www.va.gov/vaforms/ or from the couple.
The couple hope the publicity about his case will allow Sanders to fill out the support form for other veterans trying to prove their conditions are service related.
For more information, contact Paula Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org, Todd Sanders at email@example.com or call them at 247-1987.