Wally Heath — once a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy, once a Navy reserve sailor who hauled heavy equipment in the Middle East — now sits at home in pain.
He takes 19 prescriptions. He has memory loss, chronic fatigue, stomach and sinus problems, muscle aches, vision loss, headaches and infections. Years ago, a doctor told him to prepare to die.
But when it came time for the government to pay, he was told his pain was imaginary. He felt used.
"Like a diaper," said Heath, 62. "They just toss you to the side."
Heath is one of about 200,000 American Gulf War veterans who claim to suffer from mysterious "Gulf War syndrome." Friday, the Veterans Affairs Department vowed to review what could be thousands of those disability claims, opening the door for compensation that many say is two decades late.
"It's about time," Heath said.
The VA will review regulations to ensure veterans get what they were owed under the law. Rejected veterans could then be considered again. Out of almost 700,000 men and women who served in the war, 300,000 have submitted claims, according to the VA.
Gulf War syndrome is a collection of symptoms — rashes, joint and muscle pain, sleep issues and gastrointestinal problems. Hundreds of millions of dollars have gone toward research, but the cause still isn't clear. Scientists and service people have pointed to pesticides, chemical drops, oil well fires and pyridostigmine bromide pills, which soldiers took to safeguard from nerve gas.
"I took them once," said William Carpenter from Frostproof, a former staff sergeant with the 325th Maintenance Company. "They made me sick. Being a staff sergeant, I was supposed to take them. I didn't. I used a little common sense."
Carpenter, who once trained by running three miles on the sand carrying a backpack of rocks, left the war with muscle pain, breathing problems and memory loss. The VA declared him 60 percent disabled, he said.
"When I got home, I couldn't climb a flight of stairs," he said. "I'll never get well.
He and others testified about their illnesses before a Presidential Advisory Committee in 1996.
"We had people in there with shopping carts full of medicine and bottles and stuff," said Carpenter, 69. "They had a couple guys in there with bags of pills."
With questions lingering, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki appointed a task force. Last week, Shinseki and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., met with several veterans. After the meeting, Rockefeller said a reluctant military or poor record keeping made it hard for veterans to prove they needed help.
Glenn Hertel of Hudson is sure something from the war caused his bipolar disorder, memory loss and pain. He was a truck driver for the 546th Transport Company and spent a year in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. He took the pills and slept near Iraqi ammunition dumps.
The VA has rated his disability at 40 percent. Hertel, 43, hopes the new review might help him win a 50 percent rating, which would entitle him to more medical coverage. At the least, he said, it might fully identify his illness in his medical records.
"Right now, the records just say I was a Gulf War veteran."
"Every so often they say ,'We're going to look into this, look into that. We'll do a study,' " said Heath, who lives in Tampa. "I don't put much hope in my government."
His condition forced an end to his job as a detention deputy in 1994. He got by on $1,000 a month nonservice-related disability, church, and help from family. In 2007, he said, the VA granted him full coverage for some of his ailments.
Twelve years after he applied.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857. John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2258.
What is Gulf War syndrome?
. A collection of symptoms that generally include fatigue, rashes, joint and muscle pain, loss of balance and loss of memory or other mental problems. Doctors often liken it to chronic fatigue syndrome, and many believe it is an immune disorder.
. About 200,000 Gulf War veterans complain of symptoms.
. One study found that soldiers with the syndrome are more likely to have children with birth defects.
. It has many suspected causes, including toxic fumes from detonated weapons depots; pyridostigmine bromide pills, which soldiers took to protect themselves from nerve gases; pesticides; and exposure to depleted uranium munitions.
. There's no single treatment.