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Legacy of Worry : Birth Defects Among Children of Gulf War Veterans Prompt Nagging Questions, Few Answers

October 22, 1995|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YORBA LINDA — He has a Purple Heart.

It lies beneath a ragged line in the middle of his chest.

His nanny coos at him as she unbuttons his cotton jumpsuit, exposing the vivid incision made last month by a surgeon's knife.

"Yes," she says softly, "he has his own battle scars."

At first, no one saw a connection between Christian Coats' congenital birth defects and the fact that his father fought in the Persian Gulf War.

Doctors simply called it fate when the boy was born last year with a deformed heart on the wrong side of his chest.

But when Christian's parents, Brad and Lynn Coats, learned about dozens more abnormal babies being born to Gulf War soldiers, they couldn't help suspecting the spate of poisons to which Brad was exposed in Kuwait.

While taking part in Operation Desert Shield, then Desert Storm, Brad Coats breathed the black, cottony smoke of burning oil wells, stood beside sky-high stockpiles of radioactive ammunition and ingested fistfuls of experimental medicine meant to protect him from Iraq's chemical arsenal.

Did any or all of these hazards make him sick, or damage his sperm, as some believe?

Nearly five years since the Gulf War ended, perhaps as many as 40,000 veterans--6% of those who served--have reported a mini-plague of symptoms, from fatigue and recurrent nausea to chronic joint pain and dizziness, all grouped loosely under the heading "Gulf War syndrome."

And as Gulf War soldiers become fathers and mothers, some say their sickness seems to be seeping into the next generation.

Defense Department officials express deep skepticism that the brief Gulf War could create a protracted health crisis. Pentagon officials recently concluded after a yearlong study that U.S. forces were exposed to no deadly gases or chemicals, and that no unique illness existed among veterans.

But some soldiers insist that something contaminated them, and that something seems to be maiming their children.

"Our purpose is to demonstrate to those blokes in Washington that this is a big problem, and they better get their heads on straight," says Betty Mekdeci, head of the Orlando-based Assn. of Birth Defect Children, which has built a detailed database on more than 150 abnormal Gulf War babies so far, including Christian.

No one knows how many sick children have been born to Gulf War veterans, and Mekdeci says hers is the only group trying to find out. It was her organization that detected a number of heart defects among Gulf War children, along with a number of babies born with a rare disease called Goldenhar syndrome, which causes asymmetry in the head and face. But she says the work has been slow without cooperation from the government.

Until an answer is found, the Coatses say they feel consigned to an anguished limbo. Each day, they watch Christian suffer and wonder if the cause is natural or man-made.

"When he grows up, you'd like to have an answer for him: Why he's so screwed up, why he had to go through all the pain," Brad Coats said.

On the eve of his first birthday, Christian seems to be recovering well from last month's open-heart surgery.

Still, his parents do not know how many more birthdays their son will enjoy, and their doctors won't venture a guess.

*

The waiting room at Children's Hospital of Orange County is small and airless, a pastel-shaded cell perfumed by a pot of day-old coffee as thick as tree sap.

Brad and Lynn Coats sit on a set of pink-and-blue chairs, staring at the walls, staring at the ceiling, staring at the clock, which never seems to move.

Lynn Coats holds a trashy paperback novel in her lap. She has been on Page 335 for two hours.

Her husband keeps a grocery sack stuffed with car magazines next to him, but he has yet to flip one open.

This warm September morning, Christian is undergoing a delicate operation to strengthen the transposed and malfunctioning parts of his heart. Down the road, when he is stronger, doctors will try to virtually rebuild the organ.

At 9 a.m., the hospital's head cardiac nurse appears in the waiting room.

Brad blurts: "Do they have him split open?"

The nurse blanches at the question. She doesn't know that he is a former Army mechanic, the kind of man who likes to roll up his sleeves and get down inside the nitty-gritty of things. She doesn't know that he stays up nights, drawing elaborate color pictures of his son's heart on the family computer.

"Yes," she says quietly, "they have him split open."

When Coats asks another graphic question about the state of his son's exposed chest, his wife gives him a look that says, Enough, Brad, enough.

Lynn Coats is crustier and feistier today than when she married Brad six years ago. Tragedy has toughened her.

Besides Christian's ordeal, she had to endure those long winter nights in 1991, watching on CNN as shrill warning sirens rent the air above the Persian Gulf. The alarms were constant, like the bleat of car alarms in a bad neighborhood, and each one supposedly signaled another chemical attack.

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