Invisible Soldier

Sun-baked sand blew up from the desert beneath the spinning wheels of the small Army convoy and swirled about the two trucks as if the devil winds were purposely following the slow-moving vehicles. There was a nervous tension gripping every inch of Melissa Coleman's sweat-drenched body on January 31, 1991 as she sensed that something was eerily wrong, that the mission she was on-transporting heavy equipment-had somehow led her and three others to a place only a few yards away from death's doorstep. Operation Desert Shield had yet to escalate into Operation Desert Storm, but soldiers on both sides of the brewing conflict had begun exchanging gunfire and grenades, filling a part of the Persian Gulf region with the precursory sounds of war.As Coleman drove the truck, she was startled by a sudden blast, followed by a searing pain. Her shoulder was shredded and the right sleeve of her uniform was blood red. Coleman had been hit first by an enemy bullet and then pierced in the same shoulder by flying shrapnel. Several minutes and one wrong turn later, Coleman was captured by enemy soldiers at a point on the Saudi Arabia-Kuwait border that had been seized by Iraqi troops the previous day.The convoy had been stopped cold in its tracks-Coleman's freedom was over. When the initial shock of being shot and captured by the Iraqis finally lessened, Coleman looked about her new quarters and realized her life had changed forever. She lay on a makeshift bed on the dusty floor of a small cell each night for 32 nights, her one window barred with iron rods and covered with a sheet of cardboard. Over and over, just outside her poorly-shielded window, Allied bombing raids were relentless in pursuing their targets.Life as a prisoner of war finally ended for Coleman on March 4, 1991. But her 33-day ordeal inside the walls of an Iraqi compound, according to Coleman, went largely ignored by the Pentagon until revealing video footage left no room for government denials and cover-ups. Coleman went to Saudi Arabia a healthy, patriotic American teenager with a sense of commitment to the United States Army and responsibility to her country. She came back a decorated soldier, but with a jaded view of many of those for which she served.Six years later, Coleman remains shackled by another ominous enemy-Gulf War Syndrome. Looking back, the San Antonio Texas resident says she will never forget the awful way she was treated; not by her captors, but by her own government.Feeling ignored and betrayed by the Army, the Pentagon, and by Congress, Coleman points to three reasons she says have changed the way she feels about her nation's military and political leaders and reduced the level of commitment she now believes she owes her country. The first is Coleman's claim that the government refused to recognize her as a POW until she was released from captivity. Second is what Coleman refers to as the brushing off of GWS illnesses as stress-related and/or psychological complications. Finally, Coleman claims that the American government has treated Iraqi refugees better than American Gulf War vets since the conclusion of Desert Storm.Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan on March 9, 1970, Melissa Coleman grew up in a poor, predominately black neighborhood. Her parents, Joan and Leo Rathbun, say they raised their daughter to treat everyone, regardless of skin color, equally and fairly. They now say they would give anything if their daughter could be treated as fairly by Congress and the military. Coleman was active and involved in her community. In high school, she participated in athletics, sang in the school choir, and joined ROTC. It was Coleman's involvement in ROTC which helped motivate her to join the Army shortly after graduation.Completing her basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, Coleman was stationed in Saudi Arabia in late 1990. It was there where Coleman's life took its horrendous 180-degree turn.As a POW, Coleman was understandably scared, but some prisoners of previous wars might argue that she was fortunate. The Iraqis treated Coleman's shoulder wounds, fed her as many as five meals a day, and let her join in soccer games with prison guards to help pass the time during daylight hours."Anywhere you go, there are good people and bad people. Some are humanistic and some are not," says Coleman. "Iraqi soldiers are like our reservists; when Saddam Hussein decides he wants to go to war, those people have to leave behind their jobs, their homes, and their families. Luckily, I got stuck with some Iraqi guards who tried to make me feel comfortable and who did not want to hurt me."Still, Coleman never forgot that she was a caged mouse, with nowhere to run and no place to hide. The guards might not kill her, but the terrorizing reality that American bombs could land on her cell at any second reminded Coleman that friendly fire might. The ground beneath Coleman shook violently each time bombs hit nearby targets, exploding giant chunks of earth and concrete into the midnight skies."There was one point," claims Coleman, "where I was confined in solitary and closed the door on myself when I heard the [air raid] sirens. The guards kept the window covered with cardboard at night, but there was a small hole that I could see through. I saw a ball of fire fall from the sky and hit the compound I was in. The whole prison shook and the window fell in. I had nowhere to go."Coleman's captivity was a controversial topic up until her release. Leo Rathbun claims Pentagon officials knew his daughter had been captured by the Iraqis, but refused to list her as a POW, instead cataloging her as Absent From Post until the very end. "Absent From Post?!" exclaims Rathbun. "That's the same as AWOL. Melissa wasn't AWOL, she was a POW, for God's sake."Why did Rathbun believe his daughter was an Iraqi POW? He claims Iraqi reports and trickles of information leaked by members of the media indicated that his daughter was in fact being held by Iraqi soldiers. But Rathbun also claims that American intelligence officials dismissed the information as incorrect. Rathbun claims those officials merely refused to believe anything that the Iraqis had to say at that time-even if it had to do with the well-being of his daughter.Coleman, however, has a different take on what she believes led military leaders to ignore her predicament. "There was all the controversy of women in combat back then. I don't think the Pentagon wanted to heighten that by admitting an American female soldier had been taken prisoner," Coleman surmises, the crook in her sarcastic smile revealing her disgust.Coleman shares a message she claims was relayed to her after the war had ended. It is a message that would appear to support her father's contention that the government was aware of her captivity all along. "I had an Air Force captain tell me after the war was over that the Air Force knew where I was and that they had seen me walking around the compound from an aircraft."Rathbun says his dealings with Army and Pentagon officials were a joke. He claims that one colonel confirmed to him that Coleman was listed as AFP because, "without a war [Coleman was captured just prior to the actual declaration of war by the United States], she could not be a POW." Nearly a month after Rathbun had begun writing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, begging for the release of his only child, wondering if his daughter was dead or alive, if he would ever see her, hold her again, the unbelievable occurred."I got a telephone call from a friend," says Rathbun. "I turned on my television set and put it on CNN. It was Melissa." Rathbun again called his contact at the Pentagon and told him to turn on his television set. "Look at her. She's crawling out of a van in a yellow jumpsuit-with the letters P-O-W written across the front of her chest," the angry father said to the colonel.CNN had captured Coleman's release live and Rathbun had been glued to every millisecond of the raw footage. It was only after this footage aired that Specialist Melissa Coleman's status was changed from AFP to POW, retroactive to the beginning of her actual imprisonment, according to Rathbun.But Rathbun contends that by refusing to list his daughter as a POW, the government was flirting with disaster by placing her life in peril. Rathbun explains that without the CNN footage prompting a change in Coleman's status, she could easily have been left behind after the war-left behind in an Iraqi prison. "Because she was not listed as a POW, [the government] would have assumed her to be missing or dead," he says angrily.Coleman, dressed casually, her omnipresent sunglasses in place, is quite pleasant and warm when discussing her current life, but rattle her emotions with questions about her treatment at the hands of her government and she becomes the wrathchild, expletives exploding from her lips. Some of Coleman's San Antonio neighbors and acquaintances might brush off her often stinging personality as Yankee arrogance, but there seems to be a side to her that is gentle and sincere and afraid.Sometimes Coleman will pause in the middle of conversation as though she's somewhere else. But even during her silent stretches, one never stops wondering just when she will pull out her verbal sword and unleash another attack on those she feels have stolen away years of her life without offering as much as an apology.That Coleman was indeed a POW is perhaps not all that Pentagon officials and members of Congress have tried to hide concerning her health and well-being. Of the more than 700,000 troops who participated in the Gulf War, several thousand have since complained of a variety of symptoms linked by some medical professionals to Gulf War Syndrome. Coleman, too, says she is suffering from a multitude of similar illnesses and is being treated for GWS-a collection of symptoms the Pentagon has refused acknowledge as a disease."I'm not well," says Coleman. "I have constant fatigue, and I have degenerative arthritis in both knees and in one wrist. I have a thyroid condition for which I'll be medicated the rest of my life. I have severe migraines that are totally debilitating most of the time, leaving me bed-ridden."It's difficult with two children. I have a family to take care of and my needs come second," continues Coleman.Twenty-four days after her release from the Iraqi prison, Melissa Coleman married Michael Coleman, a man she had met in the service. Michael Coleman, who also served in the Gulf War, appears to be suffering from GWS as well, according to his wife. And there have been alarming signs that at least one of the Coleman children may have contracted the illness."Michael is not well, and my oldest daughter had red spots on her skin that took a long time to go away," says Melissa Coleman. Severe skin disorders have been documented as one of the symptoms experienced by Gulf War vets. The debate on GWS rages on, but conclusive answers seem as far away as the land in which this dreadful epidemic may have been born. One thing is certain, however, thousands of Gulf War vets like Coleman left their homeland in good health, only to return sick and weak. And some are dying. "[GWS] may not be from any one thing," claims Coleman, "but I believe it is a combination of four factors: the vaccinations they gave us that were not approved by the FDA, the oil well smoke, the nerve gas pills, and possibly [the destruction of] chemical weapons."Coleman says she was captured before the nerve gas pills were distributed, but claims to have received the controversial vaccine aimed at warding off damage from toxins. "We were told by the Army that the vaccinations were not approved by the FDA, but if we [didn't take] them we would be court-martialed for insubordination."I've also read the reports where Czechoslovakian soldiers tested the [Persian Gulf] sand and found chemical residue even before the war started," claims Coleman, hinting that chemical weapons may have been stored and/or used in the area.Coleman echoes what other Gulf War vets have said in Congressional hearings and to the media about the Pentagon and too many members of Congress. "They want to convince us and everyone else that we are suffering from post-war stress or other psychological problems. I know all about those two things and this is very different," says Coleman.Like Coleman, not everyone is willing to buy into the government's notion of stress and psychological connections. "Is my door open to the possibility that Gulf War Syndrome is genuine?" Dr. Claudia Miller asks herself aloud. "Yes, my door is open."An assistant professor in the Department of Family Practice at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Miller is also a member of the Veterans Administration advisory committee on Gulf War illnesses. She has served as a consultant to the Department of Veterans Affairs Regional Center for Persian Gulf War Veterans in Houston, and presented a Presidential Advisory Committee report on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses in February 1996.One theory Miller is pursuing is the TILT Theory. "The TILT Theory-or Toxic Induced Loss of Tolerance-of disease is that, different from usual toxicity, different from allergies, people have an initial exposure event to some chemical, and individuals in the population who may be susceptible may go on to develop sensitivities to things that had not been a problem previously," claims Miller."What we think may be going on is there is a different mechanism, different from classical toxicology, involving sensitization of the nervous system that parallels sensitization of the immune system," Miller adds.Responding to Coleman's claim that Czechs tested for and found chemical residue in the Persian Gulf soil, Miller says: "The Czechs are noted for very good and accurate chemical detection work. Incidentally," claims Miller, "some of the Czechs [that were in the Persian Gulf] are now reporting symptoms similar to those experienced by our gulf vets." Miller does not believe Gulf War vets will receive answers or cures anytime soon. "Some of the chemicals that these vets may have been exposed to do not leave footprints," claims Miller. "We need to conduct testing using a controlled environment. Until then, it will be difficult to reach proper conclusions and find real answers."According to Miller's 1996 Presidential Advisory Committee report, 80 percent of the patients she studied with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity reported working full-time prior to their exposure. An identical percentage of patients said they were unable to work or could work only part-time after their exposure.Another local researcher, Dr. Anthony Amato, headed up another team of researchers studying ailments claimed by Gulf War vets. The former director of neuromuscular service at Wilford Hall Medical Center and now, like Miller, a member of the UTHSC, Amato led his group in studying 20 of the most severely affected patients representing all branches of military service. Amato's group claims to have found very little evidence that would indicate that the patients observed were suffering from a disorder unique to the Persian Gulf.Miller has a calm warning for her colleagues such as Amato: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," she urges.There are those who want to let Melissa Coleman know that she is not alone in her battle against GWS. "There have been so many claims through the American Legion," says Alex Nino, district post service officer, from his San Antonio office. "We are trying to tell the [Veterans Administration] that they need to look deeper into this problem," continues Nino. "We will support these vets to make sure the VA hospitals see these vets and treat these vets."Nino says that 75 percent of all the claims investigated by the American Legion turned up vets who would "really be sick." Nino adds: "I'd go to these veterans' homes and see the real problems up close." The South Texas Veterans Health Care System in San Antonio has also been instrumental in offering support to Gulf War vets by providing examinations and conducting ongoing research."We are Military City, U.S.A.," says STVHCS spokesperson Diana Struski. "We need to reach out into the community and provide counseling and make a real effort to help [Gulf War vets]. There is a genuine concern here to continue our research and treatment."But that concern rings a little hollow for Melissa Coleman, America's first enlisted female POW, who is now suffering from GWS. She feels cheated, ignored, and betrayed by the Army she could not wait to join and the government she so willingly offered to protect and defend. "Sometimes I think I would have been better off if I had left my country and become a citizen of Iraq," Coleman bitterly exclaims. "Then I could have come back as a refugee and received $7,000 and medical assistance from the United States."Coleman refers to an Iraqi refugee resettlement plan she believes is nothing more than a slap in the face of every Gulf War vet, particularly those inflicted with GWS. According to Michigan Representative Pete Hoekstra, the United States spent $70 billion on the resettlement program in the two years following the conclusion of the Gulf War. And statistics given to Coleman by Senator Phil Gramm note that 8,000 Iraqi refugees entered the U.S. in 1992 and 1993. Of those 8,000, nearly 1,000 were Iraqi POWs, according to the letter Coleman says Gramm sent to her explaining the reasoning of such a program."Unbelievable," says Leo Rathbun. "Unbelievable.""Think what that $70 billion could do for Gulf War vets and the fight against Gulf War Syndrome," his daughter shouts.Coleman's mother softly says, "It is time the government admits some guilt, takes some responsibility, and gives us back the sons and daughters we entrusted to them."Leo Rathbun hugs his wife and his daughter and begs for someone in government to be as brave and courageous as the 700,000 Desert Storm troops. "Admit the syndrome exists and find a cure," he says. Although Coleman says she has tried to put her time in the Persian Gulf in the back of her mind, she can't begin to forget or ignore the disease that is slowly taking its toll. "I pray that someone will find a remedy or a cure for this disease," says Coleman.But Coleman is fully aware that perhaps the best she can hope for is to fight to make her government more responsible, more honest, so that her children do not have to live with or die from Gulf War Syndrome. "I don't want money. I want a cure," explains Coleman. "I'm only 26 years old; if I feel this badly now, how am I supposed to go through the rest of my life? What kind of life do I lead for my kids?"Melissa Coleman wants only to get back her life: the life she placed on the line so that Kuwait could again be free from the grip of Saddam Hussein; the life cruelly robbed of its best years by the crippling effects of GWS; the life temporarily locked inside the walls of an Iraqi prison while her nation denied she was a POW; the kind of life a 26-year-old wife and mother deserves to live.An honorable discharge, a Purple Heart, the Prisoner of War Medal, and the National Defense Service Medal have not altered Coleman's bitterness toward her government. For this once invincible, then invisible soldier, hell did not begin with the bullet in her shoulder or her incarceration in an Iraqi prison cell; it began the day she came home. The day Melissa Coleman discovered the identity of her real enemy. Somewhere behind the dark sunglasses lurks a frightened young woman--afraid to close her eyes at night. Afraid of tomorrow.

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