Gulf War: 'Why can't you be the way you were?'

"Momma, why can't you be the way you were?" Victoria's 7- year- old son said.

She didn't have an answer. Neither do her doctors.

Victoria, 39, is like many sick veterans from the Persian Gulf War. She has so many ailments that doctors are stumped for a diagnosis.

A former Army medic, Victoria spent eight years in the service and more than six months in the Persian Gulf. She is a single mother who manages to hold down a job in San Antonio. It isn't easy.

Victoria has fatigue, chest pains, breathing problems, sores that leave scars, recurring high fevers and two menstrual periods a month.

"I knew things were bad, but it just broke my heart when my son asked me why I was sick all the time," said Victoria, who asked that her real name not be used.

Since her discharge in September 1991, Victoria has been treated in nine separate military clinics without a diagnosis. "The doctors look at me like I'm crazy and say it's just stress. Well, it may be stress, but that's only because they don't know what's wrong with me," she said.

The armed forces deployed 650,000 men and women in the Gulf War. About 5,000 came from South Texas. No one is sure how many service members are sick. Defense officials report 500 to 1,000 defined cases of Gulf War Syndrome, but the Disabled American Veterans, a veterans organization, has estimated as many as 4,000 veterans are affected.

In 1991, the VA established a national registry for Gulf War veterans. Registrants could receive free physical examinations, counseling, family support and other services. In South Texas, 844 veterans have registered and doctors have examined 200, most of whom were referred to specialists.

Officials at Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital in San Antonio have adapted procedures for the unique situation. They contracted with three private doctors to help speed examinations. In addition, they put each Gulf War patient under the care of a primary physician. "There were so many symptoms and the patients were seeing so many different doctors that we had to get more consistency in treatment. We needed one doctor who could monitor an individual's situation and get the big picture," hospital spokeswoman Amber Baldwin said.

Most veterans organizations say the VA is handling Gulf War veterans better than it did Agent Orange patients. Agent Orange was a chemical defoliant used in the Vietnam War. For years after the war, veterans claiming Agent Orange disabilities were denied benefits until Congress acted. Researchers said Agent Orange contained dioxin, which can cause sickness in high doses, but they said it was unclear whether any service personnel were exposed to such levels.

Few Gulf War veterans claiming chemical exposure have won disability benefits so far. The VA has granted about 80 claims out of 1,500. Most claims are being denied on the basis that there is no medical or scientific connection between any exposure and resulting disability. The VA says the claims statistics may be deceiving. Many cases could be pending because active-duty personnel who file a claim do not receive a decision until they are discharged from the service. In addition, Congress would have to pass legislation for the VA to recognize chemical sensitivity as a service-related disability.