Gulf War Syndrome Strikes Home

By Turbak, Gary | VFW Magazine, January 1997 | Go to article overview
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Gulf War Syndrome Strikes Home

Turbak, Gary, VFW Magazine

Most people think the Persian Gulf War ended (almost as soon as it had begun) in 1991. For many Gulf veterans, however, this conflict rages on. The enemy today is not Saddam Hussein, but rather a mysterious, phantom-like physical and/or mental affliction potentially as dangerous as anything in Kuwait, Iraq or Saudi Arabia. Some Gulf vets believe they're battling the Pentagon, too.

In 1992, only a few months after their triumphant return from the Gulf, many veterans began experiencing aching joints, insomnia, fatigue, memory loss, nerve damage, skin rashes, headaches, and literally dozens of other symptoms.

Occasionally, spouses who had never been to the Gulf also became ill, and some vets produced children with birth defects. Sick GIs inundated some VA hospitals, and soon headlines labeled the puzzling phenomenon the "Gulf War Syndrome."

That was five years ago, and today Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) remains as baffling as ever. "Everyone agrees that [Persian Gulf] veterans are sick, but we have repeatedly had difficulty finding a cause," says the VAs Dr. Robert Roswell.


Try as they might, legions of scientists have been able only to suggest some possible origins of GWS misery:

* Iraqi chemical weapons.

* Pyridostigmine bromide pills taken by troops to protect them from nerve gas.

* Vaccines against anthrax, a biological agent known to be in Saddam Hussein's arsenal.

Depleted uranium used in some U.S. anti-tank shells. These munitions give off some radiation when exploded.

* Fumes from the many oil wells set ablaze by the Iraqis (fires that may have been used to incinerate chemical weapons).

* Deet and Permethrin, insect repellents used in the Gulf.

* A genetic predisposition that might make certain people extremely sensitive to minute amounts of nerve gas and other chemicals.

* Multiple chemical sensitivity. According to this theory, an overload of chemical agents (such as those mentioned above) can in some individuals cause an allergic reaction to common thingsfrom perfume to gasoline to new carpet.

It's even possible that two or more factors may be working synergistically to cause some GWS symptoms. For example, researchers gave test animals pyridostigmine bromide, Deet and Permethrin. Alone, each substance had no harmful effect, but when combined, they triggered in the animals a variety of chronic health problems not unlike those experienced by Gulf veterans.


Many vets have been frustrated with the Pentagon's reluctance to validate GWS. Initially, the government held that nothing in the Gulf could have caused the maladies cited by veterans. The official position was (and is) that the Iraqis did not employ chemical weapons against allied troops (despite reports to the contrary from French and Czech chemical weapons teams and from U.S. soldiers telling of burning skin, greenish-yellow mists and strange smells).

Related to this view is the traditional scientific belief that chemical weapons cause immediate injuries or death but not lingering, chronic symptoms. Experts in and out of government remain unable to link veterans' symptoms to specific aspects of Gulf War service, or even to the Gulf at all.

Statistical studies suggest that Gulf War veterans are not getting sick with any greater frequency than soldiers who did not see Gulf service. Several independent "blue ribbon" scientific groups, including a prestigious committee of 18 scientists and physicians assembled by the Institute of Medicine, raise significant doubt that a bona fide GWS even exists. "There's nothing in the syndrome that makes sense," says Dr. Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel laureate who has studied this issue.

Initially, the government was not concerned with gathering health information from Desert Storm participants-a failure that rankles many Gulf vets.

Last October, a report by the National Academy of Sciences scolded both the Department of Defense and the VA for laxity in their Gulf War health studies.

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