Former Gulf War Marine Carter Nelson says 20 years after his deployment, he still suffers from joint aches and memory problems tied to his military service.
"I just live with the pain," Mr. Nelson told us from his home in Knox County surrounded by a minefield map, wartime letters from his wife, and the sand colored helmet he wore into combat aboard a tank during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
"We had over 200 people in our Persian Gulf support group from seven different surrounding states, all having the same (health) problems," said Mr. Nelson. He and his fellow Gulf War veterans have for years expressed frustrations that the Veterans Administration can't pinpoint the cause of their illness.
"Our focus is on treatment of the symptoms rather than on trying to get at the cause of the problems simply because it is just too difficult a problem," said VA researcher Dr. Victor Kalasinsky during a recent conference call.
Specialists with the VA told 10News their individualized care has improved dramatically during the past two decades. They acknowledge anywhere from 25 to 35 percent of Gulf War veterans continue to complain about a range of mental and physical problems. The source of those health problems could be exposure to nerve gas, certain military vaccinations, or toxic smoke from oil well fires. Collectively, what was once called "Gulf War Syndrome" is now classified as "Chronic Multi-symptom Illness" and could be a combination of all three of those risks or a myriad of other causes. Again, researchers admit they don't know and they may never know. The VA's focus now and moving forward is building individual care profiles and treatment of the symptoms.
In addition to our on-camera interview with Carter Nelson took time to answer the following 10 questions that offer a deeper window into his life before, during, and after his military service.
1. What one person influenced you most in life?
That is a tough question. There are several people. Military life has to be my Uncle Jimmy. He went to Marine Corps boot camp in 1969 graduated in the top of class and he consistently finished in the top of his class in officer school, flight school and by his early twenties he had already flown more than 70 combat missions in Vietnam
2. Do you feel honored and respected for serving your country?
3. How can people thank you for your service?
Paying it forward. The country has done that a lot. I'll never forget when our plane landed in Maine and seeing the people and the signs and the crowd welcoming us back meant the world. That was different from Vietnam. It was unbelievable.
4. How do you honor your fellow service men and women?
Whenever I see them I tell them, "been there done that and I'm proud of you for making it through." Once a Marine always a Marine. Even more important is supporting their families while they are deployed.
5. How do you think this generation of service men and women is different or similar to yours?
The difference I think is the length of the war. We have kids going over there now that were nine and 10 years old when the war started in Afghanistan.
During our time the last big conflict before Desert Storm was Vietnam.
Now we still have people volunteering after seeing the consequences of war everyday. That says a lot about the courage of this generation.
6. What influence did your military service have on the rest of your life?
It changed my entire life. Boot camp. Tank school. My friends all made me into the man I am. But my sickness changed my career.
Before I was running a bakery and when I came back my body wouldn't allow me to do that anymore. I had to go back to school and build a new career in sales. It gave me flexibility to deal with the bad days where I can't function normally.
7. Does your family have a history of military service?
Two uncles and my dad served and my grandfather served in WWII. I grew up on military service.
8. Would you encourage younger generations in your family to join the service?
Only if they go into the Marine Corps.
9. How has your opinion of war changed?
It is real. It is necessary. But it needs to be done right. It needs to be an all or nothing thing. The biggest thing is the rules of engagement. We can't tie the hands of the front line troops.
10. How did your military experience shape your faith?
When we went over we dug out a chapel in the sand and had services. I had always gone to church throughout my career.
I was always loud inside the barracks on a Sunday morning after a late Saturday night
My faith in God and my belief in God knowing there was something better I wasn't worried about getting killed. It allowed me to function at a higher level in battle.
I may be going through sickness and pain now but once I get on the other side that is all gone.