Casualty of War

updated 08/30/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/30/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ON THE MANTEL IN HIS CAPITOL HILL office, Indiana Republican Congressman Steve Buyer proudly displays the Liberation of Kuwait medal he received after serving as a captain in the Army reserves during the Persian Gulf War. But closer at hand are other, more depressing reminders of his six-month stint in the desert: a nasal spray for asthmalike symptoms and two bottles of pills from which he must take six doses of medication daily for sinus and respiratory problems. "The Gulf War," he says, "changed my life and my body."

Buyer, 34, suffers from a strange, debilitating illness that, according to the Texas-based Operation Desert Sheild/Desert Storm Association, has struck nearly 8,000 of his fellow Desert Storm veterans. The malady, for which doctors have not yet fully identified a cause or a cure, takes many forms, including constant fatigue, memory loss, blurred vision and, in cases like Buyer's, chronic respiratory problems. Initially, military officials dismissed the handful of vets who complained about health problems as simply suffering from stress. But as Buyer and others started to document their unexplained ailments, the Pentagon and the medical community began to encourage soldiers to come forward and seek treatment. "This is a real illness that we don't understand," says Maj. Gen. Ronald Blanck, commander of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. "But it's frustrating because we can't measure the damn thing."

Trouble began for Buyer after he returned home in May 1991 from Saudi Arabia, where he interrogated Iraqi prisoners. "I started to jog again and found when I ran down the lane 1,000 feet, I was out of breath," he says. "I thought, 'Have I gotten out of shape this quickly?' So I just stopped." He began getting the flu, over and over, then kidney problems, a prostate infection and a spastic colon. By early 1992 he had developed severe allergies to flowers and trees. His wife, Joni, 35, knew something was terribly wrong. "He was a person who was strong as a horse," she says. "He was becoming sick every time I turned around."

Nevertheless, Buyer, who had been involved in local Republican politics for years, decided to try to unseat three-term Democratic Congressman Jim Jontz. Last fall, though he spent two weeks in bed with pneumonia, Buyer edged out Jontz on Election Day with 51 percent of the vote.

Buyer didn't connect his illnesses with the war until he began hearing about other sick vets. Even now, like thousands of others, he can only-guess at what was causing his symptoms. Though the U.S. government did not report any evidence of Iraqi use of chemical warfare agents, a Czech team attached to a Saudi unit reportedly detected traces of a nerve gas in the air during the war. Other possibilities include exposure to lead from kerosene-burning tent heaters, polluted air from oil-well fires and depleted uranium from U.S. antitank shells. Some soldiers were also given an untested anti-botulism drug to ward off chemical warfare agents. Buyer says one doctor told him that the exposure to such a combination of external and internal toxins was "an insult to the immune system."

Though he is still plagued by a hacking cough, Buyer is able to get through the day—and even play on his party's congressional baseball team—with the help of prescription medicines. Other vets have not been as lucky. In March, Todd Richmond, 25, an Iowa Marine who helped liberate Kuwait City, left his job at an Iowa City towing company to get treatment at a veterans hospital in Houston for his joint pains and fatigue. His wife, Teresa, 26, stayed behind with their three children, scraping by on welfare. "I can't do too much with the family," he says. "I can't work. With them depending on me for support, it's hard."

Buyer hopes to help Gulf vets like Richmond by pressing the military to recognize disability claims for the unsolved illness. "I don't like dwelling on my health, but I realized I had to come forward," he says. "I encourage all Gulf vets to come forward and have a physical, so that they can understand what is happening to their bodies."

NINA BURLEIGH in Washington

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