Two days before the ground attack in the Persian Gulf war, Robert J. Courson's superiors told him to pop some pills in his mouth.
He didn't learn until later that the medication was an experimental pretreatment against nerve gas.
The Jamestown carpenter and thousands of other veterans of the conflict now wonder if the pills, as well as exposure to a host of chemicals, played a part in the mysterious illnesses they have suffered since returning from Saudi Arabia.
"VA doctors first kept telling me it was in my head. I'm learning from others that it's not," Courson testified Tuesday before the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses.
More than six years after the war, Courson still suffers from headaches, respiratory problems, fatigue, memory loss and muscle weakness. He said the symptoms have become so bad he has been unable to work since April 1996.
In January, the committee issued what was supposed to be its final report, saying it did not believe biological or chemical weapons were responsible for the health problems of gulf war veterans and suggested the effects of wartime stress were the more likely source of the illnesses.
President Clinton extended the commission for nine months to keep looking for a cause for the mysterious illnesses, including such factors as low-level chemical exposure, the effects of pesticides and
oil fires and the stress of living in a combat situation.
Earlier this month the Pentagon announced that as many as 98,910 veterans may have been exposed to very low levels of the chemical agent sarin after an Army demolition team destroyed a cache of Iraqi rockets in 1991. No connection between that exposure and health problems has been found.
But many critics, including the dozen people who testified during the public meeting at the Buffalo Hilton, believe the ailments result from exposure to chemical agents in low amounts and in combination with insecticides or medicine.
"Constant dust, malaria, trash fires, insecticides, aircraft fumes, burning oil fires -- this is multiple chemical sensitivity made worse by stress. Let's cure it if we can or treat those who can't be cured," said Robert H. Purple of Morrisville, who served as an air base commander in the gulf war.
Since the war, animal studies have suggested that the pill Courson ingested -- pyridostigmine bromide -- and insect repellents could have caused a toxic reaction similar to a symptom seen in many gulf war veterans.
The Food and Drug Administration in 1991 waived the federal requirement that subjects in drug experiments be fully informed about an experimental drug before consenting to take it. The Pentagon said it did not have time to obtain the consent of troops headed for the gulf war.
The FDA on Tuesday began accepting comments on whether to revoke or change the military's ability to give soldiers experimental drugs without their consent.
"We believe it's possible to obtain informed consent for clinical trials in a military context, although it is fraught with more difficulty than with civilians," FDA spokeswoman Mary K. Pendergast told members of the committee.
Pyridostigmine bromide is not approved as a pretreatment against nerve gas, but the FDA agreed to let soldiers take it based on Army animal studies showing it protected against certain types of gas.
Panel members suggested the military failed to study veterans when they returned home to learn if there was a connection between their illnesses and the pretreatment for nerve gas.