Gulf War fight goes on for many who served

Debbie Fellows recalls the first time she walked into a room full of Gulf War veterans.

British soldiers from the First Stafford, well known as the "Desert Rats", stand in a trench in January 1991 somewhere in Saudi desert
British soldiers from the First Stafford, well known as the "Desert Rats", stand in a trench in January 1991 somewhere in Saudi desert

“It was like walking into a room of death,” she says. “Everybody there had walking sticks, men in their 30s and 40s, this should not be.”

That was in 2002, and one of the men in that room was her husband Darren, whose health had progressively declined since his return from the Gulf war a decade earlier.

It is 30 years since Darren returned after helping to liberate Kuwait, but the effects on his life of what became known as Gulf War syndrome are more real than ever.

Darren is now 50, but has the health problems of a much older man.

“His health has not improved over time and he makes regular trips to the doctors and hospital with no answers to a cause of Gulf War Syndrome,” says Debbie.

Debbie and Darren Fellows pictured in 2002

“It has affected his whole life, with work causing stress and fatigue on a daily basis.

“Due to his poor memory he gets into trouble a lot. Family life is also affected due to his stress and poor concentration, he needs regular prompting and assistance.”

Debbie says she and their three daughters have to take on extra responsibilities to support him.

“As a family we’re very worried about his health and a week does not go by without some concern about his well-being,” she says.

Researchers estimate around 250,000 veterans of the 1991 Gulf War could be living with the syndrome.

Admiral Nugent, Commander of UK Maritime Forces, talking to some Royal Marines of 40 Commando during exercise Saif Sarrea II in Oman in 2001. PA Photo: PO[Phot]Lewis.S.J./Royal Navy Handout

A scientific study earlier this year ruled out the possibility that the illness could have been caused by inhaling depleted uranium, and suggested it could instead be a result of being exposed to nerve agent sarin.

The Royal British Legion says a lack of understanding of the condition has had a “serious impact” on veterans.

Debbie and Darren met while pupils at the Dudley School in the 1980s, and they remained in touch by letter after Darren joined the Army at the start of 1987, serving for four-and-a-half years as a private in the 1st Battalion Staffordshire Regiment.

Naturally, she was delighted when he returned from the Gulf apparently safe and well during the summer of 1991, but within a year he was already showing signs that all was not right.

At first the symptoms were relatively mild: pains to the stomach and chest. He lost his hair while still in his 20s, and started to suffer from fatigue, rashes and chest infections. He also lost weight and started to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, causing anger, irritability and memory loss, as well as low self-esteem and a lack of confidence. As the symptoms intensified, he started to suffer from nightmares, sleepwalking and most recently seizures.

An allergy to sunlight meant he soon had to give up his civvy street job as a scaffolder.

Chairman of the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association Tony Flint and Gulf veteran Brian Tooze, in wheelchair, taking a petition to Downing Street in 1998

Debbie says the start of the low points came in February 2002, one month before she met the other veterans in the ‘room of death’ at a meeting of the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association.

“Darren realised he was ill and needed help and many other veterans were ill with the same symptoms,” she says.

Some 19 years on, Darren’s condition has deteriorated.

“His life is affected more as time goes on,” says Debbie. “At this present time he manages to hold a full-time position as a self-employed plaster, but needs support and assistance with paperwork to be able to continue in this role.”

The Ministry of Defence accepts that many of the illnesses experienced by Gulf veterans relates to their service in the war. One theory is that the illnesses have been caused by a cocktail of injections that soldiers were given before they were sent to the Gulf.

British Royal Marines of 3 Commando Brigade patrolling while on exercise preparing for possible war on Iraq at Camp Rhino in Kuwait back in 2003

In 1998 a petition was presented to then prime minister Tony Blair demanding a public inquiry, but sufferers are still waiting.

Part of the problem is the diverse range of symptoms that different veterans suffer from.

“Somebody might have multiple sclerosis, another might have chronic fatigue, and this means that they keep brushing us off in different directions,” she says.

“They are fearful of a big compensation claim. But more than anything we just want to know the truth.”

And it is this lack of knowledge which leaves se the veterans do not know the cause of their illnesses, they know little about what the future holds.

“Very few of them are able to hold down jobs,” she says. “Darren’s one of the lucky ones, he can walk all right, and he’s still able to work.”

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