IJAMSVILLE, Md. – Tucked behind the other family portraits sits a photograph of a man with a steely build and broad jaw maneuvering a raft over rapids.
Col. Herb Smith, 57, once known to many in the Army as “super trooper,” doesn’t recognize himself in that picture today. He has since lost his brawn and can barely walk.
“I was superman, and I didn’t think it was possible for superman to become sick,” he said.
A former physical trainer for the Army, Smith came home from his year-long tour in the Gulf in 1991 and, like several thousand other veterans, complained of unexplained illnesses.
Since then, the Army has acknowledged that he came down with Lupus and sustained brain damage during his military service, he said. His doctors tell him he may have only a few years to live.
Before the war, he led troops on 20-kilometer marches and was always the first to finish, his friends said. Today he is setting another kind of example – encouraging other veterans who are suffering from similar illnesses to seek diagnoses and benefits.
“With my medical background and rank I was able to push for a diagnosis that would be meaningful,” said Smith, who worked as a veterinarian in private practice and was one of a handful of officers in the Gulf who helped the Kuwaitis prepare for civilian casualties.
“But what are they going to do for Private Joe Six-Pack?” he asked.
Getting a diagnosis is helpful, he said, because it can lead to effective treatment of pain.
Many Gulf war veterans contend their illnesses were caused by chemical exposure of some kind in the Gulf. Smith said the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense are hesitant to admit the illnesses are war-related, which leads to foot dragging on getting diagnoses and benefits.
Being in pain and not knowing what is wrong are the biggest frustrations some of the veterans have, he said. Often they are told their condition is not serious.
“For a while there I was in bed 24 hours a day,” Smith said of a period in 1993 when he had no diagnosis and spent months in a hospital bed. “Sometimes I couldn’t keep the tears off my face … and I was told I was not hurting that much.”
Veterans who are going through similar experiences call him when they think they are getting the runaround at the VA or when they are just feeling pain.
“We’ll call when we’re having bad days,” said Julia Dyckman, a former Navy captain from Harrisburg, Pa. “It’s a support to know it is not all in your head.”
Nearly 90 percent of all disability claims filed by Gulf war veterans with undiagnosed illnesses have been rejected, according to the VA. They are most often turned down because the VA says a clear link has not been made between the illness and military service.
The most important thing Smith said he tells veterans is to protest rejections, to keep pushing. “He knows how to work the system,” Dyckman said.
Smith has taken the veterans’ case to Congress, speaking before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. He has appeared on television shows such as “60 Minutes.”
He said the Army only recently acknowledged that he came down with his disability during his time of service. Because of this acknowledgement, he was granted a federal tax exemption on his military retirement pay for his 30-plus years of service in the Army and Army Reserve, he said.
Smith said there are a lot of theories about what is causing Gulf war veterans’ illnesses. But one thing is clear, he said: the causes were related to the war.
“We had scuds blowing up overhead … and I went into [Kuwait] where the smoke was so thick and heavy you couldn’t tell the day from the night.”
In June, the Department of Defense acknowledged the U.S. troops may have encountered chemical exposure after an Iraqi weapons depot was destroyed at Khamisiyah. But the Department of Defense has not concluded the illnesses are linked to the exposure.
Smith’s wife, Pam, said she resents the military when she sees how her husband spends his days.
The two of them used to camp together a lot, she said. They also used to ride horses and prospect for gold in the hills near their Frederick County home. Smith rarely leaves the house now.
His big outing each day is getting in his wheelchair and taking his two dogs, Hannah and Raisin, for a walk up and down his street each afternoon.
“We’ve given so much,” Mrs. Smith said, remembering how they lost a child, Scott, when a military transport plane blew up over Newfoundland in 1985.
Smith is not so resentful. “It takes too much energy to hate,” he said.
He said the military made him feel like a first-string football player with an injury. “They just forget you,” he said.
But later this month, the Army will show he is being remembered. Smith will be awarded the Legion of Merit medal for being a “truly unique” officer who always took the opportunity to volunteer for overseas deployments. He’ll hang it above the family portraits. -30-