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Retired CIA Officer Finally Gets Treatment For Symptoms Of Havana Syndrome

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: It was December 2017. CIA officer Marc Polymeropoulous was in Moscow. He woke up in his hotel room with a horrible case of vertigo.

MARC POLYMEROPOULOUS: This was the scariest moment of my life. I mean, the room is spinning. I can't stand up. I'm falling over. I feel physically sick. I have tinnitus, which is ringing in my ears. So, you know, something really unusual and terrible had happened to me.

MARTIN: What did you think was happening?

POLYMEROPOULOUS: So, Rachel, the first thing I thought of was that it might have been food poisoning.

MARTIN: It wasn't that.

POLYMEROPOULOUS: And then really, you know, as the symptoms continued and got worse when I got back to the states in early 2018, that's when it really kind of dawned on myself and others that something really unusual had happened.

MARTIN: Marc Polymeropoulous was one of the first Americans to report experiencing symptoms of the so-called Havana syndrome outside of Havana. This is the mysterious illness that The New York Times reports has afflicted more than 130 U.S. government personnel and their families in Cuba, China, Russia and elsewhere. The New Yorker has reported that Americans working at the White House have recently come down with the illness as well while working on site. But back in 2018, Marc's symptoms confounded government doctors.

POLYMEROPOULOUS: So when I got back and I eventually made my way to our CIA's Office of Medical Services, you know, they put me through kind of a rudimentary protocol that they had developed, which had to do with just some, you know, very basic, you know, walking in a straight line and, you know, almost filling out a sheet and a brief talk with a doctor. And they concluded rather quickly that this was not consistent with what they had seen amongst the victims in Cuba. And that really started a pretty long battle with our Office of Medical Services, which lasted for years because, you know, the CIA senior medical staff didn't believe me.

MARTIN: But Marc is convinced he was the victim of something called a direct energy attack. There's not a lot of public information about who exactly has the technology to carry something like this out.

POLYMEROPOULOUS: Ultimately, there was question, was this kind of a signals intelligence system designed to kind of collect on our cellphones? Was this turned up too high or was it an offensive weapon?

MARTIN: And we should just explain these attacks would happen because some nefarious entity would be trying to extract data from a computer or a cellphone. And if there's a human being close to those devices, then these physical effects start happening to that person.

POLYMEROPOULOUS: I think that was an initial theory. I think it's moved to more of an offensive weapon. This is not really novel technology. It's just a question of whether you ethically use it against another human. And so I think that's where we are now. And, you know, the good note - and this is an important point to make - is that I think we're past the notion of this is psychosomatic, that the victims are making this up. It's just happened too much. So something is happening.

MARTIN: And those were the allegations that were coming towards you. I mean, for more than three years, you were trying to get people to pay attention and you couldn't even get treatment. I mean, what was that like? What was that experience like?

POLYMEROPOULOUS: So, you know, it was a tremendous moral injury. So, you know, we talk about the physical injury of my headaches. I've had a headache for three years. I still have it today. And it's been - you know, that's pretty debilitating. I can talk to you now. And I wrote a book on leadership that just came out. So I was able to - I'm able to function for two or three hours a day and concentrating, but that's about it.

MARTIN: We should say you retired because of this, right?

POLYMEROPOULOUS: I retired because of this. So I retired at age 50. I was in the senior intelligence service. I was one of the most highly decorated officers. I had a lot, you know, left in the tank, you know, if I could have gone to work. You know, whether, you know, people inside approve of what I did in going public or not, I don't think there's any doubt that I was considered one of the - you know, a fine officer at CIA. And so, ultimately, there was more to go. I mean, you know, you don't retire at 50. But I did so because I couldn't go to work. You know, I have a splitting headache every day. And so, you know, that's really unfortunate and compounded on top of that was the anxiety that I developed. So when I eventually got to Walter Reed, they were just as concerned kind of about my mental health status as the chronic pain that I was suffering. And, you know, on a good note, Walter Reed really helped me work through the mental health aspect.

MARTIN: Yeah. So that's important. A few months ago, you finally did get treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center, and that's helped.

POLYMEROPOULOUS: It was - it's been extraordinary. So, you know, all they want to do is make you feel better. And, boy, did I need that. And it changed. It saved my life. So not only does it give me, you know, tools on how to deal with my chronic pain, but it also gave me hope. And they frankly diagnosed me with a traumatic brain injury. You know, we do something called art therapy. And in that, you're creating masks. You're creating art to express yourselves. And a colleague of mine, a serving CIA officer in the senior ranks who's been hit by this, painted something he called - he called it "The Gunshot." And it's a black canvas. You know, he painted it black and he threw red paint on it. And that really resonated with a lot of us because that was what we wish had happened to us. I rather would have been shot, to have a visible wound so that CIA could have believed me as I really struggled for those three years. And so I love that painting and what it means. And it really kind of details our struggle to obtain the, you know, the health care that we think - or we do deserve.

MARTIN: Is this getting enough attention now? I mean, this is something that's affected untold number of Americans. We don't know the exact number. I mean, is this undermining American national security at this point?

POLYMEROPOULOUS: So there's two great points there. So let me start with, first of all, the answer is yes. I mean, you know, I think people are worried about serving overseas. You know, this is something that has to be tackled because this is really - and, you know, it's an invisible injury. And people's families are getting hit by this. So, you know, I haven't really talked about this ever in public until today. But there's also family members of officers who've been affected overseas. The family members are getting injured. And so that's pretty insidious. But No. 2 - look, I have to give the Biden administration some credit here, and in particular, the new CIA director, Bill Burns, who has taken an extraordinary interest in this issue, in my case specifically. He's met with the victims. He has visited Walter Reed. So I think he is really dedicated to not only ensuring that CIA officers get health care but also find out who's responsible. But I don't think we're there yet.

MARTIN: That was former CIA officer Marc Polymeropoulous. His new book is called "Clarity In Crisis: Leadership Lessons From The CIA." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.