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Sunday, February 08, 2004

Tommy Denton: A veteran serving those afflicted in service

By Tommy Denton

   In the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, former Army mechanic Kirt Love observed the destruction of an Iraqi weapons bunker.

For more than a decade, Love fought a battle of another sort to receive medical attention for chronic migraines, abdominal pain and other debilitating ailments that came to be identified as "Gulf War Syndrome." After filing in 1993 for disability benefits, he finally was able to convince Veterans Affairs last year that his ailments were service-related.

    As reported by Robert Tomsho last week in The Wall Street Journal, Love's circumstances were complicated from the outset for a variety of reasons. First, Love was not able to obtain a detailed account of his unit's exact location where he was believed to have been exposed to biological weapons during the demolition.

    To exacerbate matters, his Army medical files contained no record of the vaccines and antidotes given to him before he went into the combat zone.

    So for a decade, Love battled the bureaucracy before he finally persuaded the VA of the connections between his ailments and his wartime experiences. In response, he has founded the advocacy group Desert Storm Battle Registry, which advises veterans of current conflicts about what they may be up against with the Pentagon.

    "What I went through," Love told The Wall Street Journal, "no one should go through. Unfortunately, it's going to happen again."

    That observation should concern the men and women now serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, because even the Pentagon acknowledges shortcomings in the records of the inoculations administered to soldiers against a multitude of exotic diseases.

    Such gaps prevent proper tracking of vaccines and other preventive treatments or the times and locations of possible exposure to chemical or biological agents.

    Veterans like Love argue that such records are critical not only to establish eligibility for veterans benefits but also to assist physicians to diagnose and identify the causes of delayed illnesses that may develop years later and to treat them.

    Congress agreed, enacting a law in 1997 requiring the Pentagon to improve monitoring of wartime troops' health. But according to U.S. Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., a Gulf War veteran who helped draft the law, the Defense Department's progress toward developing a comprehensive, continuously current database of medical histories has been "disheartening."

    A General Accounting Office audit concluded that the tracking system would not be complete until 2007. That's not good news for Love, who has labored long and hard to prevent his successors from experiencing his plight, but it's worse news for his successors now in uniform.

    Love, as it turns out, lives in Mount Jackson, about 135 miles north of Roanoke, just off Interstate 81. From Exit 269 to Virginia 730, go a half-mile and take the left turn for 2 1/2 miles on U.S. 11, also known as the Lee-Jackson Highway and the 116th Infantry Regiment Memorial Highway.

    Maybe it's stretching mere coincidence, but the juncture of Kirt Love, Mount Jackson and the 116th Infantry Regiment Memorial Highway strikes me as worthy of reflection on certain timeless seams of history - and devotion to certain ideals.

    Organized Nov. 3, 1741, in Augusta County at Beverley's Mill Place, later renamed Staunton, the 116th Infantry Regiment possesses a long and distinguished pedigree. After service in the French and Indian War, the regiment later saw extensive action in several engagements during the Revolutionary War.

    Among its several iterations, the "Stonewall Brigade" also presented its colors in numerous battles during the "Late Unpleasantness," as well as in World War I, World War II and beyond.

    In other words, for more than 2 1/2 centuries, the 116th Infantry Regiment answered the call to duty, as deemed at various times to be right and proper. The current proximity of Kirt Love, Mount Jackson and the memorial to the 116th should arouse gratitude for one dedicated man, in one historical place, who understands something of the legacy of service to those who serve.

    Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's minions in the Pentagon should emulate that same dedication.