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Gulf, Vietnam veterans join to demand justice

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With chants of "new war, same lies," U.S. gulf war veterans who accuse the government of indifference to their health problems joined forces Saturday with activists still pressing for a final accounting of American servicemen lost a generation ago in Indochina.

They came together on the National Mall for a Memorial Holiday weekend of oratory, songs, fund-raising and petition signing.The largest single group of nearly 100 marched to the Lincoln Memorial across the Arlington Memorial Bridge from Virginia after a journey, mostly on foot, begun April 20 at Melbourne, Fla., 900 miles to the South. Others converged on the capital by motorcycle.

Many wore shirts emblazoned "Operation Thunderstorm," a name symbolizing the linkup of veterans of "Operation Desert Storm," official designation of the Gulf campaign, with "Rolling Thunder," the Vietnam activists' annual motorcycle march on Washington scheduled for Sunday.

"How are the gulf veterans supposed to believe anything any more than the Vietnam veterans believe anything?" guitar-strumming Michael Martin, a Vietnam veteran from Texas, asked in a ballad he sang at the Memorial steps.

Martin helped found "the Last Patrol," an organization campaigning for "truth and accountability" on such issues as Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome, exposure of Gulf combatants to toxic substances and alleged abandonment of POWs in Indochina.

Another organization, Americans for Truth, asked people on the Mall to sign open letters to President Clinton demanding treatment for Gulf veterans complaining of radiation sickness from uranium used in coating antitank missiles as well as the armor of tanks and armored vehicles.

Denise Nichols, a retired Air Force major and former flight nurse from Denver, wore a shirt inscribed "Desert Storm Guinea Pig." She said she first proposed the linkup with Vietnam activists at "Rolling Thunder" a year ago.

All gulf veterans want is "to be treated and compensated" for ailments they believe were caused by toxic substances encountered during the war without having to wait 20 years to prove service connections, Nichols said.

Carolyn Zsoldos, a nurse at the Medical Center of Delaware, said she began suffering abnormal fatigue and hair loss after service in the Gulf as a Navy hospital ship data processor.

Diane Dulka of Windsor Locks, Conn., the widow of a gulf veteran who died of cancer in 1994, said her claims for survivors' benefits were denied four times. She said in a speech she's been told that exposure to cancer-causing toxic substances can cause birth defects in future generations and she worries that her son "may produce a child with a deformity."