Gulf War Veteran, Artist: b. 1963
Kim Hawkins was a budding, twenty-five-year-old artist, living in New York City with no money, when she joined the Navy. “I think we’ve been fighting ever since we stepped off the Mayflower,” she says of her family’s military history. She worked in aviation hydraulics, serving stateside. In 1990, days before Hawkins was to be discharged, she made an ill-advised comment about a rape case in which the offender was given a light penalty. Her tour was extended, and she was sent to the Persian Gulf, and eventually reassigned to the hospital ship, USNS Mercy.
Seeing injured Gulf War troops flown in, many of them casualties of “friendly fire,” opened Hawkins’s awareness of how cruel war is to those who fight. “If you’ve ever thought about going to war at all, you need to go to a V.A. hospital and take a look,” she says. Years later, Hawkins began noticing that the casualties continued even after the fighting stopped. “I was hardly more than thirty years old, and already I’d lost seven or eight [veteran] friends to cancer,” says Hawkins.
She and other Gulf War vets started searching for the reasons for the high cancer statistics among veterans. “It was such an alphabet soup of exposures,” she says, citing chemical weapons that were blown up, burning oil wells, and radiation from depleted uranium (DU) missiles. Made from a cheap byproduct of nuclear energy, DU weapons can penetrate just about anything—and then release billions of radioactive dust particles. The results of dropping hundreds of tons of DU during the Gulf War, says Hawkins, included skyrocketing rates of birth defects and cancer among Iraqi children, a 67 percent birth-defect rate among children of Gulf War vets, and elevated rates of cervical and uterine cancer among vets’ wives—not to mention the cancer and other mysterious ailments among veterans. (In the Iraq War, thousands of tons of DU were used.)
Suicide also runs higher among vets, due in part to post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). Hawkins was diagnosed with PTSD well after the war and endured four years of excruciating treatment. In all, she says, the Government Accounting Office reports that 400,000 of the 600,000 troops who served in the Gulf War have received treatment for diseases and disorders.
Hawkins now speaks wherever she can about hazards of war duty that recruiters don’t mention. “I’m certainly not trying to scare people,” she says. “But if I can spare someone going through some of the experiences I’ve gone through, then that would be a good thing.”