Rodger Needham has been suffering from Gulf War Syndrome for nearly 25 years. He talks to Chris Bond about the battle against his illness and why many veterans feel abandoned.
EVEN though he’s in obvious discomfort, Rodger Needham says this is one of his better days – because there are times when he struggles to even get out of bed.
Rodger is 48 years-old and should be in the prime of his working life. Instead, he hasn’t had a job in 15 years and relies on Disability Living Allowance and his war pension, while his wife, Sue, is unable to work because she is effectively his carer. It’s not the life either of them expected, or hoped for.
Rodger suffers from Gulf War Syndrome – a medical condition characterised by fatigue, chronic headaches, muscle pain and cognitive problems, among other symptoms. Its origin has been the subject of much debate with many veterans of the first Gulf War blaming a cocktail of injections and pills given to them as protection against chemical attacks for the health problems they now suffer.
Rodger, who lives with his wife in Dunscroft, near Doncaster, was among the 53,462 members of the British armed forces deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Desert Storm – the US-led campaign against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
He now has chronic fatigue and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But he isn’t alone. In January, the Royal British Legion called on the Government to do more to help veterans suffering from Gulf War Syndrome, after claiming as many as 33,000 former soldiers could potentially be living with illnesses linked to serving in the conflict.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) responded by saying it has funded extensive research into Gulf War illness and continues to monitor developments in the US, insisting it would give consideration to any new research proposals. For many veterans, however, life remains hard and there is a feeling among them that they have been forgotten by those who sent them into action.
Rodger’s story typifies their anguish. He joined the British Army at 17 and when the Gulf War erupted six years later he volunteered for active service and was attached to 53 Ordnance Company, spending time in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
“It was bleak and there was sand everywhere,” he says. “During the day it was very hot and at night time it was freezing. On one occasion we passed burnt out trucks and bodies, and most nights the alarms went off warning of possible chemical attacks.”
Rodger first felt unwell while he was out in the Middle East. “It got to the point where I felt nauseous all the time. I don’t know if that was worry or from the alarms constantly going off, but near the end after we’d had all the final injections a few of us started feeling sick. But you just got on with it.”
He went out to the Middle East at the start of October 1990 and returned on March 23 the following year – the day before his eldest daughter Clare’s first birthday. He spent his remaining three years with the army based in Ripon, by which time he noticed his health was already deteriorating. “I’d always played football and squash wherever I went so I was fairly fit, and then I started struggling with the combat fitness test,” he says.
After leaving the army he had a series of jobs, including working for a vehicle rental firm and a local car dealership. But by the late 90s he was struggling to cope. “I would work Monday to Friday and when I got home on Friday it took me ages to get out the car because I didn’t have the energy, and I spent Saturday and Sunday recovering just so I could go to work on the Monday. But it reached the point where I couldn’t do it any more.”
This was in 2001 and he’s been unable to work since. As a proud ex-squaddie with a family to provide for he’s found the situation hard to accept. “It’s reached the point where three or four days a week I struggle to get out of bed. We had a stairlift put in just so I can get up and down the stairs because before that I had to crawl up.”
Rodger, like many veterans from the conflict, feels isolated and abandoned. “There’s not much help out there and there’s not a lot of people who understand Gulf War Syndrome. The GPs say they’ve heard about it but they’re not the ones living with it,” he says. “You have your good days and you have your bad days, but it’s hard to deal with. I have to take a scooter in the car because I can’t walk very far. I look at myself now compared to what I was before and I feel useless.”
Rodger knows other veterans who are struggling with health issues and believes there are more out there who haven’t come to terms with their illness. “There’s probably a lot of veterans out there who don’t realise that they’re going through a similar thing. I know because I was the same, I denied it for years.”
He wants to see more disclosure about the drugs and vaccines they were given. “It’s not just one thing it’s a combination of things. It was the pesticides used on the tanks and all the injections we had. We were taking the nerve agent biological treatment tablets but after a week we were told not to take them any more,” he says.
“We want to know what was actually in these injections and we want acknowledgement that what we’re going through could be attributed to this. But they just seem to want to forget about it.”
The MoD says financial support is available to veterans and their families through the War Pensions Scheme and Armed Forces occupational pensions schemes. An MoD spokesman told The Yorkshire Post: “We are indebted to all those who served our country in the 1990/1991 Gulf conflict.” He added: “We are clear that veterans should not be disadvantaged as a result of their service and we are absolutely committed to supporting them.”
But Rodger’s illness hasn’t just affected him but his whole family. His wife, Sue, has watched helplessly as her husband’s health has steadily worsened, not just physically but mentally. “Before he went to the Gulf he was so placid and laid-back but when he came back he was a totally different person, he was moody and aggressive.”
She says there have been times when he’s thought about taking his own life. “There’s been occasions when he’s tried to walk in front of a car and I’ve said ‘why did you do that?’ and he’ll say, ‘it’s over for me.’ But I know that’s the PTSD.”
Sue believes the Gulf veterans, having served their country, ought to be treated with more respect. “I feel angry, we just want them to get the recognition and treatment they deserve without having to fight for it all, or going to their GP and hoping that they understand what you’re going through.
“People don’t see Rodger’s bad days when he’s been up all night reliving things that went on in the Gulf - the chemical attacks where he’s putting his breathing apparatus on,” she says.
“We’re never going to get back to where we were and the person he was, it’s going to get steadily worse. It isn’t Rodger’s fault but we just have to deal with it as best we can.”
Veterans charity offers lifeline
The Hull-based National Gulf Veterans and Families Association (NGVFA) was set up in 1999. Since then it has aided countless veterans and their families, offering support, information and counselling. In Rodger’s case the charity has helped with appeals and gettiing his war pension improved. His wife Sue says they have been a lifeline, “without them we’d be lost.”
Maria Rusling, the charity’s general manager, says Gulf War Syndrome doesn’t just affect those who went to the Middle East, but their families who live with the aftermath. “Twenty five years on and they still feel abandoned by their own government who sent them out there.”
For more details go to www.ngvfa.org.uk