In March 2017, Tina Onufer, a career foreign service officer stationed in Havana, was standing at her kitchen window, doing the dishes, when she hit her.
“I felt like I was struck by something,” she said. “A pain that I have never felt before in my life… mainly in my head and in my eyes. … It was as if I had been grabbed by an invisible hand and couldn’t move.
Onufer didn’t know it at the time, but she was among the first victims of a still unexplained phenomenon known as Havana Syndrome – a mysterious set of symptoms, some of which are linked to brain damage, which have now afflicted as many as 200 American diplomats, intelligence officers and other personnel around the world.
Onufer and two of his former colleagues in Havana, a married couple named Kate Husband and Doug Ferguson, spoke to NBC News about their experiences after getting clearance from the State Department. They want the world to know that what happened to them in Havana caused real suffering and documented injury, and that those who continue to insist that it must be a case of mass are wrong.
Watch this story tonight on “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” at 6:30 p.m. ET / 5:30 p.m. CT (or check out your NBC station).
“The way the doctor summed it up for me… he said, ‘Well, it’s like you’ve got old, you know, 20, 25 all at once,” said the husband, who was diagnosed with “acquired brain damage related to exposure to the phenomenon.”
NBC News first reported in 2018 that U.S. intelligence officials suspected Russia to be behind the phenomenon, which some believed to be intentional attacks using microwave energy.
Three years later, intelligence agencies have been unable to prove that, despite a report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine claiming that directed microwave energy is the most plausible explanation, and noting that Russia has studied the technology more closely than any other nation.
During the Trump administration, senior officials including CIA Director Gina Haspel did not treat Havana Syndrome as a high priority, and some CIA officials were openly skeptical, according to current officials and intelligence alumni. Over the past eight months, under President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Tony Blinken and CIA Director William Burns, the federal government has stepped up efforts to investigate the cause while clearing the way for the afflicted seek treatment. Earlier this month, Biden signed the Havana law, which improves their access to medical care.
A number of patients have been treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center alongside soldiers who suffered brain damage from bombs in combat. Often the symptoms are similar.
“People don’t understand what this kind of brain damage can do to you,” Onufer said. “So it’s very easy for people to be dismissive and say, ‘But you look good. But the reality is, I am not. And I don’t think many of us are. And we just want our lives back.
Intelligence officials say they haven’t gathered enough information to say for sure what is causing the injuries or who is to blame. But they say Russia remains one of the main suspects. And several sources familiar with the matter said intelligence agencies are increasingly focusing on a theory that the injuries were caused by some kind of directed energy, based on their own analysis of the evidence.
Officials say they are now completely ignoring a 2018 State Department report from the JASON Advisory Group, an elite scientific board, suggesting some of the initial cases were caused by sounds made by a noisy cricket species.
Some officials believe that if directed energy is the culprit, it may have started as a method of intelligence gathering that has now been militarized, multiple sources told NBC News.
CIA officers and State Department employees deployed overseas now have the option to do basic blood tests, so if they are stricken with the syndrome, doctors can have a basis for comparison .
U.S. officials say that once the government began urging employees to report any possible symptoms, the number of reported cases increased dramatically. But they warn that not all of those who have come forward are part of the Havana Syndrome cohort.
David Relman, professor of medicine, infectious diseases, microbiology and immunology at Stanford, led the National Academies study, which found that “directed and pulsed radiofrequency energy appears to be the most plausible mechanism to explain these cases”.
He said he sees no possible natural phenomena at work.
“I don’t know why this happened to these people, but I think it was deliberate,” he said.
“There is a lot of literature, including some in Russian, that indicates that pulsed microwave energy can cause some of these symptoms and signs and brain damage. There are many international players who could afford to deploy technology like this in today’s world.
One of the confusing elements of Havana Syndrome is that many apparent victims experienced it differently.
State Department employees Kate Husband and Doug Ferguson, for example, did not feel a dramatic shock wave. For them, it was more subtle.
“What we went through was something that sounded boring with us several nights a week for, weeks,” Ferguson said.
“It was piercing,” the husband added. “It was persistent, like a little on the same level all the time. Very loud… nothing you could sit down and agree with.
The couple were then examined by neurologists at the University of Pennsylvania. Ferguson was allowed to return to work, but her husband was diagnosed with a brain injury and sent for treatment. She then retired due to a medical disability.
She still suffers from balance issues that lead to nausea and a fog that makes basic chores difficult.
“Cognitive issues are multi-layered,” she said. “Some of them relate to executive functioning. They said I have a real deficit… now I live with a notebook, a calendar that is open in the center of my space at all times.
The husband and the others speak out to push back against critics who believe their illnesses are the result of mass hysteria.
“I mean, I checked for physical injuries,” she said.
Onufer said she was speaking out “to humanize this for America, to help all of my fellow Americans understand that skepticism still seems to surround this, it’s very real.”
Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that there had also been suspected cases in Bogota, Colombia.
Asked about Colombia on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said: “We are not confirming information. But we’re in the number one case, believing those who reported these incidents, making sure they get the prompt care they need in whatever form, whether at the station, whatever. either here in Washington, DC, Area. We are in the business of doing all we can to protect our workforce… around the world. “