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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5272

Senator MARK BISHOP (1:46 PM) —I rise today to address a very serious issue concerning the welfare of any Australian forces which might be sent to join the United States and the United Kingdom in any military action against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In the Senate on 17 September, I spoke of the dangers of sending Australian forces into a war where there was divided community support, referring to the risks of alienation which were borne so heavily by those who served in Vietnam. I spoke of the damage to that generation of young men whose efforts were denigrated and who, only now, are receiving the recognition due to them. There is an enormous cost of war in human terms and budgetarily of sending forces to war where the risk of death and serious injury are high. It is a cost that goes far beyond the cost of guns, ships and all the other materiel equipment of war. I remind the Senate that the annual budget for the Department of Veterans' Affairs is now approaching $10 billion per annum and is for a declining population. War can leave families without fathers and mothers. It can maim people permanently such that they will never again lead a normal life, and it can leave a bitter sense of regret and recrimination amongst those who served and who later feel that their effort was wasted, pointless or indeed cost them immeasurably in material and emotional terms when compared with generational peers who did not so serve.

All of us here in the parliament receive regular representations from constituents with service in the Australian armed forces who, on discharge or retirement, find themselves in the queue for compensation for physical or financial loss for injury or illness they believe has been incurred in their service. By way of background, we know there are many problems with military compensation and its day-to-day operations. I do not wish to dwell on them today except to say that we may be about to see another unfortunate chapter opened as we watch threats and commitments made which will have one sure result—that is, the loss of more Australian lives and a continuation of suffering for another generation of service people who return from war with their lives in ruin.

It is very salutary to note that, just as today governments grapple with the unresolved issues of the past and their unknown effect on serving personnel, we are about to do the same again. Fortunately, perhaps, history has a way of dealing with these things, because time must take care of everything and, although it would be cynical to say so, some veterans no doubt feel that this is in fact part of the policy framework. In short, if governments stonewall long enough, all claims for compensation will go away.

As we face another war in the Gulf, it is therefore very important that we consider these issues in advance and weigh them up as an integral part of the decision making process on our engagement. We must learn from the past and make absolutely sure that, if forces are committed, it is done with full knowledge of the risks and the downstream costs. Preparation should be thorough, and promises of compensation should not be regarded as inducements or as political guilt money but as an absolutely unavoidable consequence of the decision to so engage.

Our past record, it is sad to say, is often poor. Too often troops have been sent abroad unprepared and ill equipped. Ask the veterans from Kokoda who went with World War I clothing, little ammunition and World War I Lee Enfield rifles. Ask those who almost froze to death in Korea. Ask veterans from Vietnam of their envy of the support, equipment and backup the American forces had. Consider too the outstanding and unresolved issues from the past, of which there are several, including those who were present at the atomic testing sites and who were simply asked to turn their backs to the blast. Do not forget BCOF people as well. Consider too those who served in Vietnam and who continue to be troubled by the after-effects of exposure to chemicals such as Agent Orange, on which we had a multimillion dollar royal commission that failed to bring any resolution. Consider too those who believe there is yet another outstanding and unresolved matter called `multichemical sensitivity' caused by the unknown effects of different chemicals combining to affect people in ways still not understood by medical science. Much more to the point, consider those who served in Desert Storm, particularly 700,000 Americans who continue to battle government for answers to their health problems, for which there has been, just like any other issue for so many years, a constant denial of liability. And here we go again, about to repeat history by sending troops to the Gulf, but hopefully in full knowledge of what happened then and what may well happen again.

I turn now to a policy framework. It is true that medical science is not all knowing. It has large gaps, the nature of which have not even been considered. Research simply has not been done on so much that needs to be explored, and the passing of time serves only to blur the memories. Records seemingly never existed, have been lost or, more to the point, exist in government archives and are not accessible to those who must prove their case. The pattern is the same. We do, of course, have some kind of answer in that we exercise the benefit of the doubt, albeit rarely. We have done so, for example, for the children of Vietnam veterans with spina bifida, based on a slightly elevated prevalence. Similarly, we extend counselling to those children at risk of suicide. But the use of such discretion is sparing lest it contradict the basic plank that medical science must support causation. Unfortunately, on the factual evidence, it has been unable to do so for atomic radiation and exposure to chemicals for a large range of illnesses. This does not, however, prevent ex-service personnel believing that there is a connection, and so the debate continues.

And so it is with the Gulf War. In retrospect perhaps we can consider ourselves fortunate in that, apart from approximately 1,700 personnel, mostly on board our ships and thereby hopefully removed from much of the risk, there was only a handful of Australians on the ground serving with other forces who may have been exposed. Ten years later, though, we still do not know and the government's health study, which we were told last February at estimates would be ready soon, is still to see the light of day. Let us hope that is not a sinister sign, because right now we need to know. We have also been given assurances that Australia is closely linked into the work being conducted cooperatively by the US, the UK and Canada, from which we assume we have full knowledge of the state of play.

It is reassuring that the Repatriation Medical Authority is involved in monitoring worldwide research. We do know, though, that Australians were vaccinated with up to five vaccines including pyridostigmine bromide, which seems to be at the heart of most ailments being suffered by US personnel. We also know that as at October 1999, 352 Gulf War veterans had disability claims accepted for injuries arising from that service. Let us indeed hope that is the case, because that information is needed now. However, from the US experience I fear that we cannot be too optimistic, and I refer here to testimony given to the Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs and International Relations of the US House of Representatives by the US General Accounting Office which was damning in its assessment of the way in which over $120 million worth of research was being managed and, it seems, with very few outcomes.

It is very instructive to look at the US experience from the Gulf over 10 years ago and well may we say, `There but for the grace of God go we.' The enemy is the same, the circumstances little different, but the risks immeasurably greater as the focus is invasion of the Iraqi homeland, not just ejection of an invader. Since Operation Desert Storm, controversy has raged in the US veteran community at the early denial by the authorities of the existence of what is loosely called Gulf War syndrome, though it must be said now that after 10 years the wheel is turning. Both President Clinton and President Bush have issued instructions—prompted no doubt by the level of public controversy and highly critical congressional reports—to accelerate research, to supplement funding and to improve overall coordination. Yet it seems outcomes are difficult to find apart from the fact that the use of experimental vaccines has been stopped—a little too late for a large number of people.

I would mention here at the outset that my source for what is to follow is the second report of the Congressional Committee on Government Reform and Oversight of November 1997, which is explicitly detailed on the facts with respect to the impact on US personnel. The US sent almost 700,000 men and women to the Gulf. Of those it is reported that over 10,000 have since died and almost 180,000 are in receipt of some element of disability pension. But this is only part of the downstream cost of war. The fight for recognition and treatment of what has been called the Gulf War syndrome continues to this day against that backdrop I mentioned of long-term denial by the US government, the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs. In fact it is said that in the early stages those presenting with illnesses were told it was imaginary and most likely PTSD. The evidence is now far more disturbing. The report states:

... veterans are concerned that their medical problems are chronic and disabling, and are the result of exposures to one or more chemical, biological or nuclear agents present in the theater of operations. Health problems of Gulf War veterans may stem not only from chemical and biological warfare agents but from other sources such as: pesticides and insect repellants; leaded diesel fuel; depleted uranium; oil well fires; infectious agents; and the anti nerve gas drug pyridostigmine bromide.

The symptoms for veterans are flu like: chronic fatigue, rashes, joint and muscular pain, headaches, memory loss, reproductive problems, depression, loss of concentration, gastrointestinal problems and other maladies. Because memories fade so fast, it is worth recalling for the record just what the US troops were exposed to. First there were the normal battle hazards of bullets, shells and unfriendly fire which we all associate with war—pretty straightforward. Then there were the normal operational exposures to decontaminants on weapons, fuel used to suppress sand and to burn human waste, fuel in shower water, chemicals to treat parasites and so on—all part of life in the military in a campaign.

Environmental risks are taken for granted too, and in the Gulf infectious diseases are endemic, particularly shigellosis, malaria, sandfly fever, cutaneous leishmaniasis, not to mention dengue fever and a number of other fevers. Next there was exposure to chemical weapons, and here I refer to nerve agents such as sarin gas designed to immobilise enemy forces quickly, effectively and in large numbers. From early estimates that only several thousand Americans were so exposed, the number has grown to an estimate of at least 100,000 and possibly more. Next there was exposure to biological weapons, namely anthrax, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin, not to mention others on which the Iraqis may have been experimenting. Each of these can be fatal, ranging from a few days to a few years before death. And there is more. Depleted uranium used as a hardening material on tank armour and armour piercing shells was ever present—recognising that over 1,400 Iraqi tanks were destroyed— meaning that an untold number of personnel were exposed to the uranium dust.

Finally, there was of course the horrendous pall of smoke from 700 oil wells set on fire by the Iraqis as they retreated—some of which were not extinguished for many months and which combined, no doubt, with some of the other toxic fumes already in the air. If that was not risk enough, the US also engaged in a vaccination campaign, as did the British, apparently to protect personnel from the effects of chemical warfare only to find the antidote worse than the illness. It is reported that as many as half a million American troops were dosed with a drug called pyridostigmine bromide and that up to 60 per cent are suffering side effects as bad as if they had been directly gassed. Yet this particular drug and its usage is now described as experimental. Then there is a list of other drugs administered—some reports being as high as 17 by way of vaccination or tablet form and taken in unknown quantities, with few records existing.

It should go without saying that there should be available to the parliament a detailed analysis of all the risks and hazards to be faced by any deployment to Iraq. Let us all sincerely hope it does not happen, but quite frankly, if it does, then those responsible for sending our young men and women into an environment which will be little different to the one I have described should be fully accountable for what happens. There is simply no excuse for not being prepared. Everyone who goes must be told openly and honestly about what they can expect. The question is, though, what exactly is being done? It is alarming to note that, in reply to a question in the House on 18 September from my colleague the member for Cowan, the minister responsible could not answer this very question. Either she could not find an answer or she did not know. We very much fear the latter is the case. So it is with very ominous concern that I draw this issue to the attention of the Senate. On behalf of all the ADF, wherever they may be serving, I hope for their sake they start demanding some answers too. To serve your country is one thing; to serve blindly and be sent to your peril unprepared and without support is something quite different. (Time expired)