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First Female POW of Gulf War Says She Has Syndrome

March 3, 1994

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The first female GI taken captive during the Persian Gulf War said Thursday she has inexplicable health problems similar to those being reported by hundreds of other veterans.

Melissa Coleman, who was Melissa Rathbun-Nealy at the time of her capture in 1991, said she has experienced short-term memory loss, severe fatigue, breathing difficulty, leg and arm cramps, a thyroid condition, vision loss and headaches.

She said ″it has to be″ what is now being referred to as Gulf War Syndrome. ″I was fine before I went,″ she said in a telephone interview Thursday.

″I was in perfect health,″ said Coleman, who returned to her parents’ home in Newaygo, Mich., to search for work with her husband and two daughters.

Coleman, age 20 at the time, was an Army specialist with the 233rd Transportation Co. based at Fort Bliss, Texas. She was captured with another soldier on the Kuwaiti border while delivering supplies during the battle of Khafji. She was held from Jan. 31 to March 4, 1991.

The cause of the illnesses isn’t known, but some have attributed it to chemical and biological toxins that might have been released during allied bombing of Iraqi munitions factories near Baghdad. Coleman was closer to that than many soldiers.

The Defense Department has said it found no evidence the Iraqis used biological or chemical toxins against allied troops, and has seen no conclusive links between those toxins and health problems of veterans.

″At one point during my captivity there was a lot of smoke from the oil refineries we were bombing in Baghdad,″ she said. ″Black soot covered everything, so of course it was getting breathed in.″

She said she now feels ″totally drained, no energy for anything at all.″

Her husband, fellow war veteran Michael Coleman, also is having a few symptoms, such as headaches, slight breathing difficulty and joint aches.

Their oldest daughter, 21 months old, has had rash-like bumps on her shoulders that other veterans have reported in their children, she said. Her 8-month-old daughter isn’t having any problems.

″We’re keeping a close eye on both of them though,″ she said.

Coleman is being treated for her thyroid problem, but hasn’t been tested for chemical sensitivity.

She was one of about 30,000 women among the 500,000 American troops stationed in the Persian Gulf.

After her release, she said she was held in a Baghdad cell where she passed the days recalling childhood memories and singing gospel songs. She was wounded in the arm by shrapnel.

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