Tara Batista recounts her recent history in my 2017 film titled Fragrance-Free Workplaces: Wave of the Future. Her story below describing her first years after she left the Army appears in my 2008 book titled Amputated Lives: Coping with Chemical Sensitivity.
I’m thirty-seven years old, and I have Gulf War syndrome. I joined the Army when I was eighteen right after I graduated from high school. I was trained to be a combat medic and to drive an ambulance.
Within a year or so after I enlisted, my unit was sent to the Persian Gulf. In preparation for our deployment, a civilian crew was hired to paint our vehicles with CARC (chemical agent resistant coating) paint, which is toxic and highly carcinogenic. One day our sergeant decided to have us to paint the numbers on our trucks using this paint. Now, the civilian painters wore protective suits and respirators, and they worked in big bays that vented the fumes out the top of the building. A group of us were in the motor pool building when the sergeant took the cover off a five-gallon can of CARC paint. I immediately reacted with pain behind my left eye, dizziness, and dry heaving. I also couldn’t see well and fell to the ground. The sergeant said that just for that I had to paint all the numbers on the trucks. He left only one person to help me. I got a surgical mask out of my truck to give myself a little protection, but I was given no gloves to wear and no protective suit or respirator. By the time I was done with the last truck, I was covered with the CARC paint. It was days before it wore off. The other platoons went to the PX and bought ordinary spray paint to paint the numbers on the theory that the numbers didn’t really have to be chemically resistant.
We deployed to Saudi Arabia right after Thanksgiving of 1990. After we arrived, we picked up our vehicles at the port. I drove a truck back to Cement City, where we were staying, and I developed a severe headache and vomited for hours, even while I was still driving back. When we reached Cement City, the guy in the truck with me had to half carry me to the tent. I had to take an antiemetic and two liters of fluid at the aid station.
After leaving Cement City, we went to a place called Log Base Victor. My battalion commander was there, along with a medical unit. On our first night there we were herded into a tent with guards at the door. They had ammo in their weapons, and I thought it was strange that some guards had weapons that were not in safety mode. The battalion commander jumped up on a table and said to us, “The shots you are about to get are top secret. Don’t write home about it, don’t tell people about this on the phone. There will be no record of you receiving it.” They had us take our shirts off and get Vaccination A. Later I found out it was for anthrax. That night they also handed out pyridiostigmine bromide (PB) pills in a little white box to each of us and said we would get instructions on taking them at a later point.
There were numerous air raid sirens sounding, which meant that some kind of munition was traveling through the air. One of my jobs was to set up M8 alarms that detect nerve agent. These alarms kept going off, even though no one was near them and there were no vehicles whose exhaust could set them off. On one occasion when the alarms sounded, I put on MOPP 4, my chemical suit, and my gas mask and went to one corner of our site to sample the air with a 256 kit that detects if any nerve agent is in the area. The battalion commander was there and asked what I was doing. When I told him that my job was to check to see if there was a nerve agent in the area, he yelled at me to go back to my tent. An order is an order, so I had to leave.
One night we were told to line up outside the tent and to bring our PB pills and a canteen. The officers went from person to person. The sergeant had a tongue depressor, a red-lensed flashlight, and a bag, and the commander had a 9mm pistol in her hand. We got the idea and took the pills without asking any questions. They really affected our night vision because the drug causes constricted pupils. People also started behaving strangely.
One day we were attacked by five SCUD missiles. The Patriot missiles blew three of the SCUDs up, and the debris rained down on our area. Two others just hit somewhere in the desert. Not long after that SCUD attack, I started having strange symptoms. I felt very tired, my joints started aching, I became really forgetful, and I had episodes of incontinence. I didn’t tell anyone about the incontinence; I was only twenty years old and it was just too embarrassing.
The war ended soon after this, and we headed south so that we could move into Khobar Towers in order to clean our equipment, which is difficult to do in a tent in the desert. Since our battalion commander was frequently in trouble with the 62nd med group, we ended up in some abandoned chicken coops. I happened to be within earshot when a captain who was apparently an environmental medical officer showed up and began speaking to the battalion commander. The captain explained that chicken waste can cause all sorts of respiratory and sinus issues and that it contains endospores that can cause illness. Other units had considered housing troops there, but had decided it just wasn’t sanitary. The captain said that was why they were using the Khobar Towers as a place where units could clean their gear so they could clear customs. Unfortunately, the battalion commander basically told this captain that he outranked him and he would put his troops wherever he wanted. We stayed there.
When we opened the door of the first building, we saw a mountain of chicken droppings on a cement floor. There were big windows and a space between the cinder block walls and tin roof. They sent us to get pick axes, shovels, and wheelbarrows. When we started chipping that stuff off the floor, we realized pretty quickly that the dust we were creating was bad to breathe. It was absolutely disgusting. I tried putting a wet cloth over my nose and mouth, but it didn’t help much at all.
Cleaning the chicken droppings off the cement floor was a huge problem because the stuff stuck like glue. Someone got the idea of spraying water under pressure on the floor, but that didn’t work either. All we ended up with was chicken-dropping soup. Next the battalion commander filled some cement trucks with water and added a very strong bleach to the water, thinking that bleach will kill anything.
They hosed the bleach solution into the chicken coops, but it all came pouring right back out the door. Then they sent me to the motor pool to get sledge hammers. They had us knock holes in the walls every so many feet, thinking they could shoot the water in all the holes so it would spread out and clean the floor better. That didn’t work either; the water just ran back out the holes.
Next they sent me and three other females to the motor pool to get some brooms and mops. They made us go into the chicken coop and scrub the floor while they pumped the water that contained bleach into the building. When I started scrubbing, I was soon enveloped in a white mist. I began having trouble breathing, and it felt like my trachea was being squeezed shut. I started having trouble seeing, and everything turned greenish yellow. When I started to cough up and vomit up frothy white stuff, I was afraid I was going to die. I fell out the door onto the sand, but the sergeant said, “Get the f___ back in there and finish.” I refused to go back in. At that point, the officers in charge decided that whatever was left on the floors could stay there. They did not use the bleach solution in the other three chicken coops.
The area where we were located was an agricultural hub. There were a lot of cattle, goats, and chickens in the area, so there were water holes all over, which meant that the mosquitoes were horrible. We used extra insecticide, and that caused blistering all over my neck and arms. To control the huge mosquito problem, our officers got some Saudi trucks to spray a pesticide around the area. When they sprayed, I would often develop an incapacitating headache, start vomiting, become dizzy and confused, and end up on the floor. Many times my husband, who was serving in the same unit, asked to take me to a hospital, but his request was denied. Sometimes I would have joint pain, muscle pain, and really bad fatigue for days after they sprayed the pesticide.
By the time we returned to the States, I was getting headaches every time I started my diesel vehicle, but I didn’t know what was wrong with me. My husband and I rented an apartment that was literally shiny and new. When we walked into it, I started dry heaving. I became pale and sweaty and was so tired I had to sit down. The guy showing the place to us wanted to call an ambulance, but my husband said, “No, she’s OK, this happens all the time.” I didn’t realize at that point that it was the new paint, new carpets, new cupboards, new vinyl floors, etc., that were bothering me, so we moved into the apartment. After that, I was sick all the time. At work the diesel fumes and cigarette smoke were also making me sick. I was suffering from major depression at this point, but reacted to all the medications that my doctor prescribed.
When President Clinton proposed the early-out program, I took advantage of the opportunity to get out of the military. I decided to join the Reserves so that they would pay for me to attend school to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN). Fortunately, they payed active duty pay so we wouldn’t have to work while we were attending classes. It’s a good thing because I was fatigued, had migraines very frequently, and had this vague joint and muscle pain that never went away. At least when I became an LPN, I finally had health insurance. No one could figure out what exactly was wrong with me, however. The doctors pretty much said it was depression and stress.
My husband and I decided to buy a house in Nashua, New Hampshire, still not realizing that I had this condition of multiple chemical sensitivity. When we went to a VA office to get a form for our house loan, we walked into a crowded office where lots of people were wearing perfume or aftershave. I became nauseous and developed a headache and worse joint pain; I also became confused. The lady that was helping us with the forms asked my husband what was wrong, and once again, he said, “Oh she’s allergic to everything. This happens all the time.” She then asked, “Were you in the Gulf War?” When I answered yes, she said I should file a VA claim. When I asked her what that meant, she told me that a lot of vets had come back with these weird symptoms and that the VA should take care of us since we had served our country. She even filled out the form for me so we could just get out of that office full of people wearing scented products. A few months later I got a $3,000 check from the government with no explanation. Later I found out that they had ruled that I was service-connected for sinusitis and migraines. My fatigue, memory problems, and joint and muscle pain were invisible, so I got nothing for those symptoms.
When we bought our house, we still didn’t realize that I had multiple chemical sensitivity, so we put in new carpets and an oil burner. I tried to avoid going down in the basement because the oil smell made me feel sick. We did install an all-house exhaust fan, and it helped clear the carpet smells out faster. At this point, I started a college program to get my bachelor’s degree and to become an RN, but I kept getting sick in class because of all the perfumes and cologne people were wearing. When I learned how to do research online, I at last found out what I had—multiple chemical sensitivity. During this period, I did learn that when I was able to reduce my exposure to things like fragrances, I felt better, and many of my symptoms improved. Since I liked gardening, I spent a lot of the time outdoors.
I was also learning more on line about Gulf War syndrome at this point and ended up being part of a VA study to see whether people like me who had tested positive for mycoplasma fermentans incognitus would benefit from taking an antibiotic for a year. They put me in a double-blind doxycycline study. Now in the past, I had experienced severe nausea and vomiting every time the VA doctor had put me on doxycycline for a sinus infection. When I started throwing up the first day I took the medication for the study, I realized I must be on the real drug, not the placebo. I took this antibiotic for a year, but it did nothing to help my Gulf War syndrome.
[Editor’s note: It seems highly likely that it can only have been detrimental to Tara’s health to spend a year taking an antibiotic to which she was so allergic that it caused her to vomit the first day she took it. This is yet another example of why it is so important for physicians to recognize the existence of multiple chemical sensitivity. Many other sick veterans participating in this doxycycline study would undoubtedly have reacted adversely to this antibiotic because of their underlying chemical sensitivity. In testimony before Congress, Dr. Claudia Miller, who served as the environmental medical consultant for sick Gulf War veterans in the Houston VA’s regional referral center, discussed some of her findings. She stated that “nearly 40 percent reported adverse reactions to medications—all since the Gulf War” (see my book Gulf War Syndrome: Legacy of a Perfect War, p. 146).]
After I graduated from college, I found a job in a nursing home, but I met a lot of resistance there from people who wanted to wear their perfume. After I had to leave work because I was sick several times, which meant someone else had to do my job and theirs too, other staff members at least stopped wearing perfume.
Then a new company took over the nursing home and decided to renovate, which meant painting, laying carpets, etc. The company told me to go on medical leave. I applied for short-term disability, but that was denied on the grounds that chemical sensitivity is a pre-existing condition. So I sued them for worker’s comp for the time I was out. They were supposed to rehire me, but when I called on the day the medical leave ended, they said I had no position. I went in and applied for three different positions for which I was qualified. I had worked there for three years, but they would not rehire me. By that point, I was extremely depressed, and my husband had divorced me. The doctor tried almost every type of antidepressant, but I reacted to all of them. Everywhere I applied told me they couldn’t accommodate my chemical sensitivity or they just didn’t call back. I was considering suicide.
While I was making plans to take my own life, I found a job in a state prison. One problem, however, was that it was full of mold; the floors and walls were being eaten by it. They would just cover the area with a metal plate and wait for the next area to break. It was supposed to have been a temporary building, but the state had run out of money and just continued using this building. But at least it was a job. Unfortunately, I had the same problems all over again with people wearing perfume. One night they saw me have a reaction to the stripper and floor wax, and they never forgot it.
The prison doctor thought I was faking my problems, which exacerbated my situation. I had to put on a gas mask when one particular nurse who wore a lot of perfume entered the building. The doctor continued to wear her perfume and asked me why I didn’t just go on disability. A nursing assistant apologized to me one day because she had forgotten that morning and put some perfume on, but the doctor told her not to apologize for wearing her perfume. This happened right after I had explained to the doctor about my chemical sensitivity, how I had developed it during the Gulf War, and what my symptoms were. Unfortunately in this prison most of the staff were extremely negative and downright mean to one another.
I was recently able to leave the prison job because I at last succeeded in getting a job at a VA nursing home. I hope they will be more willing to accommodate my chemical sensitivity because I want so much to keep working, and I particularly enjoy working with veterans because of my experience in the Gulf War.