The truth comes out about Gulf War Illness

November 21, 2008

Elizabeth Schulte reports on a new study that contradicts the U.S. government's long-held position that Gulf War Illness doesn't exist.

AFTER AN agonizing 17 years, the U.S. government will finally have to admit what veterans and their families have long known--Gulf War Illness is a very real and debilitating condition that has affected one-quarter of soldiers who served in the 1990-91 war.

The Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses (RAC-GWVI)--a committee of scientists and veterans appointed by Congress in 2002 to investigate the illnesses experienced by veterans of Operation Desert Storm--presented its 450-page report to Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake on November 17.

The new report, which chronicles the ailments suffered by some 175,000 Gulf War veterans--including memory and concentration problems, persistent headaches, unexplained fatigue, widespread pain, respiratory symptoms, digestive problems and skin rashes--contradicts previous reports, which denied that Gulf War Illness even existed.

Among those previous reports, a 2006 National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine, claimed that the soldiers were simply suffering from merely suffering from stress disorders typical to any combat zone.

Exposure to chemical weapons may have contributed to Gulf War Illness

As the RAC-GWVI report plainly states:

Gulf War illness fundamentally differs from trauma and stress-related syndromes described after other wars. Studies consistently indicate that Gulf War illness is not the result of combat or other stressors and that Gulf War veterans have lower rates of posttraumatic stress disorder than veterans of other wars.

According to the committee's scientific director Roberta White, veterans "have been plagued by ill health since their return 17 years ago. Although evidence for this health phenomenon is overwhelming, veterans repeatedly find that their complaints are met with cynicism and a 'blame the victim' mentality that attributes their health problems to mental illness or non-physical factors."

Lea Steele, who served as RAC-GWVI scientific director, told the Washington Post, "VA docs often know nothing about it and aren't able to help them. Sometimes, they treat them as if they are head cases or malingering."

As Anthony Hardie, national secretary for Veterans of Modern Warfare, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "It really closes one of the darker chapters of the legacy of the Gulf War, and that is Gulf War illness."

Hardie, a 23-year-old sergeant during the war, now suffers from respiratory problems, fatigue and chronic pain. "The report clearly lays out that Gulf War illness was caused by unique exposures; it lays out clearly that Gulf war illness is not a stress-related or trauma condition, that it is not the same as in wars before or since. It is unique," he said.

THE REPORT cites two main causes of Gulf War Illness--exposure to toxic chemicals, including pesticides that were used against sand flies and other pests, and pyridostigmine bromide, or PB, a drug administered to troops that was supposed to protect them from nerve gas.

At least half of all troops in the 1991 war took PB, a drug that was not approved by the Federal Drug Administration, but for which the FDA gave the Defense Department a waiver for informed consent. In other words, soldiers were being used as guinea pigs, and they had no way of knowing.

The committee also did not rule out some other causes of Gulf War Illness, including exposure to nerve agents and smoke from oil well fires, and receiving a large numbers of vaccines. Department of Defense reports show that about 100,000 U.S. troops may have been exposed to low-level nerve agents after the demolition of Iraqi munitions near Khamisiyah, Iraq, in 1991. Even being exposed to low levels of nerve gas can have lasting brain deficits.

The report cites a veteran who said:

I arrived in Theater on January 6, 1991...During official visits to strategic military cities, there were frequent SCUD attacks during which I heard chemical alarms sound. When I asked if these alarms meant chemicals had been detected, I was told that the chemical alarms had malfunctioned.

I became ill and was treated for nausea, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea and high temperature. Rashes I had over my body I thought were normal and expected since I spent most days in the sand, wind and sun, with all the attendant fleas, flies and desert parasites. Headaches I attributed to fatigue and lack of sleep. The symptoms...continued after I returned home and got progressively worse.

British Gulf War veterans are also seeing the effects. "Recognition of the full extent of the illnesses suffered by these veterans of the conflict and the obligation owed to them is long overdue," said David Craig, Marshal of the Royal Air Force and chief of the defense staff during the Gulf War. "They are victims of the war, as much as any one struck by a bullet or shell."

While the report did not link depleted uranium (DU) to the Gulf War Illness, the widespread effects of soldiers' exposure to DU are also a part of the report. Said one veteran:

I knew we were shooting DU rounds, but we were never told to stay away from vehicles that were hit by DU rounds. Now I know that we probably got DU dust all over us. But we didn't know any better, and we were dipping, smoking and eating without having washed our hands.

Right after the war, we saw lots of guys from other units climbing on the vehicles we had shot with DU rounds...In April 1991, while we were in Kuwait, I started getting diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramps, headaches, and tightness in my chest. My problems have gotten worse since then.

According to the RAC-GWVI report, Gulf War veterans developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease) at twice the rate of nondeployed veterans. It also found that personnel stationed downwind from the Khamisiyah munitions demolitions have died from brain cancer at twice the rate of other Gulf War veterans.

THE REPORT showed that very few veterans have recovered from Gulf War Illness, and the researchers had no recommendations for treatment. This is hardly surprising, since the government has done everything it could to refuse to recognize that the condition even existed.

And even though millions of federal dollars have gone to supposed Gulf War research, little has changed for sick veterans of the war. "In recent years, both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs have reported a lot of studies that weren't Gulf War illness as Gulf War research," said the RAC-GWVI's Steele. "Some of the money was misused."

The Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs claim they have spent nearly $440 million since 1994 on Gulf War research. But the RAC-GWVI found that the money was largely used to fund research that had nothing to do with Gulf War Illness.

A lot of the DOD money actually went to projects for soldiers currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the report, the department has cut funding for the Gulf War research from about $30 million a year in 2003 to less than $5 million in 2006.

This is hardly unique for the soldiers sent to fight U.S. wars. It took 20 years for the soldiers suffering from the effects of Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used during the Vietnam War, to force the government to acknowledge their illness.

Now that the facts are finally exposed on the impact of Gulf War Illness, we have to press the federal government to spend the money necessary to find a treatment for the tens of thousand of veterans who are paying for the U.S.'s wars with their health.

Further Reading

From the archives