Donnelly, Michael

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Michael Donnelly

Born February 3, 1959

Orange, California

American fighter pilot who became a champion for veterans suffering from Gulf War syndrome

"Even today, as I sit, paralyzed by ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, unable to speak, eat, or even scratch my head, I consider myself a patriot."

Michael Donnelly in Contemporary Authors.

As a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, Major Michael Donnelly flew forty-four combat missions over Iraq during the Persian Gulf War. Once he returned home, however, he began experiencing mysterious health problems that were eventually diagnosed as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). This rare disease destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing paralysis and eventually death. Donnelly learned that an unusually high number of Gulf War veterans suffered from ALS, and he became convinced that the disease was directly related to their wartime service. With the support of his family, he fought to force the U.S. government to acknowledge the link.

Love of planes leads to career in the U.S. Air Force

Michael William Donnelly was born on February 3, 1959, in Orange, California, the second of Thomas and Raffaela Donnelly's four children. His family moved to Connecticut when he was a child. Donnelly was an active boy who developed a fascination with airplanes. "I was a child of the outdoors and the physical. I lived to run, to bike, to play Army and guns, and later, every sport imaginable," he recalled in his memoir, Falcon's Cry. "And from a young age, I was fascinated by the jets that streaked across our innocent suburban skies.... I spent hours holed away in our damp basement, gluing model airplanes, affixing the U.S. insignia just so. My bedroom ceiling was the site of a permanent mock dogfight—the air above my bed prickled with jet models and fighters of every description."

Donnelly's father was an attorney who had flown helicopters for the U.S. Marines during the Korean War. Tom Donnelly remembered his military service with pride and remained deeply patriotic. Each day he raised the American flag and the Marine Corps flag in front of the family's house. When he returned home from work in the evening, his children greeted him at the flagpole and sang the marines' fight song.

Thanks to his father's influence, Donnelly began considering a career in the military at an early age. He joined the U.S. Air Force in 1981, a few months after he earned a bachelor's degree from Fairfield University. He underwent intensive flight training and eventually qualified to be a fighter pilot. "I was top gun in my class and a distinguished graduate of the program. An ace fighter pilot in the making," he recalled in his memoir. "I had never been happier in my life because I was where I was supposed to be, doing what I was meant to do." Donnelly started out flying A-10 Warthogs and later progressed to F-16 Falcons. In 1984 he married his longtime girlfriend, Susan Allen. They eventually had two children, Erin and Sean. Over the next few years, Donnelly's air force career took him across the United States and all over the world.

Serves as a fighter pilot in the Persian Gulf War

On August 2, 1990, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (see entry) had ordered his military forces to invade the neighboring country of Kuwait. Saddam argued that Iraq had a historical claim to Kuwait's territory. He also wanted to control Kuwait's oil reserves and to gain access to Kuwait's port on the Persian Gulf. Countries around the world condemned the invasion and demanded that Hussein immediately withdraw his troops from Kuwait. Many of these countries then began sending military forces to the Persian Gulf region as part of a U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. The United States sent more than four hundred thousand troops to the Persian Gulf over the next six months. This massive military buildup received the code name Operation Desert Shield.

Donnelly was stationed in Germany when Operation Desert Shield began. His unit, the 10th Tactical Fighter Squadron, was sent to Saudi Arabia in December 1990. They arrived two weeks before the deadline set by the United Nations Security Council for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. When Hussein failed to meet the deadline, the U.S.-led coalition launched a series of air strikes against military targets in Iraq. The war became known as Operation Desert Storm.

The air war went on for nearly six weeks and caused major damage to Iraq's military capability. Donnelly flew forty-four combat missions over Iraq during this time. "Our targets changed throughout the war," he recalled in Falcon's Cry. "Some days we would be after something strategic like an airfield, or just tanks, or armored vehicles. Or else they would send us out for bridges on one of the two rivers—the Tigris and the Euphrates—or we would be given sections of river to patrol. If we saw any sort of river crossing or bridge building going on, we would try to hit it." Donnelly's squadron also bombed Iraqi oil production facilities, radar installations, Scud missile launchers, and suspected chemical and biological weapons factories.

On February 24, 1991, the coalition launched a dramatic ground assault to force the Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. It met with little resistance from Hussein's army, which had been devastated by the air strikes. The Persian Gulf War ended on February 27, when coalition forces succeeded in liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Donnelly earned a number of honors for his service in the Persian Gulf War, including the Meritorious Service Medal, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, the Air Force Commendation Medal with four oak leaf clusters, the Aerial Achievement Medal, and the Air Force Achievement Medal.

Suffers mysterious illness upon returning home

Donnelly returned to the United States after the war ended and became a flight instructor at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. Over the next few years, he often noticed that he did not feel completely healthy. Though annoying, his health problems never became so severe that he needed to seek medical treatment.

In the summer of 1995, however, Donnelly came into contact with a pesticide that was used to control mosquitoes. He saw a truck spraying the chemical while he was jogging around the base. "I remember clearly the first night I encountered the truck as I was out running," he noted in his book. "It passed me, exhaling its poison, and I tasted the Malathion on my tongue, a sharp, bitter taste almost like citrus. I remember wondering vaguely, surely they wouldn't spray something poisonous or hazardous in the base housing area, where people lived with their families."

Immediately after his encounter with the fogging truck, Donnelly's health problems took a sudden turn for the worse. He began to suffer a number of strange symptoms, including an irregular heartbeat, insomnia (difficulty sleeping), short-term memory loss, difficulty concentrating, and weakness in his legs. After undergoing months of medical tests, he was finally diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in the spring of 1996. Also known as Lou Gehrig's disease (after a legendary professional baseball player who died from it), ALS is a progressive neurological disease that destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The cause of ALS is not known, and there is no cure. The disease leads to total paralysis and eventually death, usually within five years of diagnosis. ALS does not affect the mind, however, so sufferers are fully aware of the progression of their illness.

ALS is a relatively rare disease that strikes people at an average age of fifty-seven. Donnelly was thirty-five at the time his symptoms appeared. Within a short time, he learned that at least forty other Persian Gulf War veterans also suffered from the disease, despite the fact that military service members generally tended to be young and healthy. Under normal circumstances, a group of people the size of the American forces that served in the war should see only one or two cases of ALS. The unusually high rate of ALS among Gulf War veterans is known as a "cluster" in medical terminology.

ALS is linked to Gulf War syndrome

As his illness progressed, Donnelly was forced to retire from the air force in 1996 with the rank of major. By this time he and his family had begun to suspect that the cluster of ALS was somehow related to service in the Persian Gulf War. Thousands of American soldiers had developed unexplained health problems after returning from the war. Some of the most common symptoms included headaches, blurred vision, insomnia, short-term memory loss, abdominal pain, diarrhea, skin rashes, and aching joints. The collection of mysterious ailments suffered by these veterans eventually became known as Gulf War syndrome.

No one knew what had caused the Gulf War veterans to become ill. Some things that were mentioned as possible causes included exposure to chemical weapons, bad reactions to the vaccinations and experimental drugs given to the American forces, and inhaling toxic smoke from Kuwaiti oil well fires. Some experts felt that some combination of these toxic substances could have damaged the soldiers' nervous and immune systems.

At first the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) insisted that there was no connection between the veterans' unexplained health problems and their service in the Persian Gulf War. Military officials initially denied that the troops had been exposed to chemical or biological weapons during their time in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait. In 1996, however, the U.S. government admitted that thousands of American soldiers may have been exposed to the toxic nerve gas sarin during the war.

Donnelly and his family conducted their own research and talked to numerous other veterans who were suffering from Gulf War syndrome. They became convinced that Donnelly had been exposed to nerve gas as he flew his F-16 over Iraqi chemical weapons factories that were destroyed in coalition bombing raids. This low-level exposure did some damage to his nervous system, but not enough to cause ALS. The onset of the disease was triggered a few years later by his exposure to the pesticide Malathion, which comes from the same chemical family as the poisons released in Iraq.

In 1997 the U.S. House of Representatives held hearings into the possible causes of Gulf War syndrome. Although Donnelly was using a wheelchair by this time, he testified before Congress about the link between ALS and wartime service. The House later released a report that was highly critical of the DOD and the Veterans Administration (VA). The report claimed that these agencies ignored veterans' complaints and refused to declassify documents that would have helped to explain what happened to them.

Fights for victims of Gulf War syndrome

Despite the devastating physical effects of ALS, Donnelly fought to force the U.S. government to acknowledge that his illness, as well as those suffered by fellow veterans, was a direct result of their service in the Persian Gulf War. By the end of the 1990s, more than 110,000 American veterans suffered from recognized symptoms of Gulf War syndrome. Hundreds had contracted rare cancers and neurological diseases, and their children were born with birth defects at a rate between two and ten times higher than the national average. Donnelly wanted the military to provide full health care and disability benefits to all of these people.

In 1998 Donnelly published Falcon's Cry: A Desert Storm Memoir. In this book, which was co-written by his sister Denise, he tells about his early love of flight, his years in the air force, and his combat experiences during the Persian Gulf War. He also describes the onset of mysterious symptoms that were eventually diagnosed as ALS, and his constant struggle against the effects of the disease. Finally, he chronicles his fight to force the military to recognize the connection between his illness and his wartime service. "I wrote this book so that you would know the real story of what has happened to yet another generation of patriots, and so that you might be moved to act, to prevent it from happening again, so that you might be moved to do whatever it takes to protect the ideals for which I risked my life, ideals which I believe most Americans still truly value," he explained in Contemporary Authors.

Donnelly and his family achieved a major victory in 2001. On December 10, VA Secretary Anthony Principi announced that a government study had found that Gulf War veterans were more than twice as likely to suffer from ALS as American soldiers who had not served in the war. Principi also stated that the VA would provide full benefits to all Gulf War veterans diagnosed with the condition. "We are pleased that they did this, but this is really bittersweet for us," Tom Donnelly told WebMD. "This is something that they could have done years ago if they had been more concerned about helping veterans and less concerned about denying Gulf War illness existed."

By this time Donnelly was completely paralyzed. He received nutrition through a feeding tube and breathed with the support of a ventilator. His only form of communication involved blinking his eyes at specific letters as his caregivers recited the alphabet. Yet despite his limitations, he continued fighting to raise money to help Gulf War veterans and find a cure for ALS. "Even today, as I sit, paralyzed by ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, unable to speak, eat, or even scratch my head, I consider myself a patriot," he told Contemporary Authors. "Even as I hear the sad bureaucrats who populate the seats of power in the Pentagon continue to lie about what happened to me and to more than 110,000 other Persian Gulf War veterans, I can say that I do not regret my service. I am proud to have risked my life for the principles for which this country stands."

Where to Learn More

Arnold, David. "Victory for Gulf War Family Who Persisted on Link to ALS." Boston Globe, December 16, 2001. Available online at (accessed on April 9, 2004).

Boyles, Salynn. "Feds Acknowledge Lou Gehrig's Disease a Gulf War Illness." WebMD Medical News. Available online at (last accessed on March 26, 2004).

Donnelly, Michael, with Denise Donnelly. Falcon's Cry: A Desert Storm Memoir. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998.

Michael Donnelly." Contemporary Authors Online, 2000. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003.

"Michael Donnelly Biography." Hope for ALS. Available online at (accessed on March 26, 2004).

Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. "Campaign by Pilot's Family Secures Benefits for Gulf War Veterans." New York Times, December 25, 2001.