Gulf War Illness and the Health of Gulf War Veterans
By the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses
If you don't want your kid to join the military, have them read the latest report on the health of Gulf War veterans, released by a congressionally mandated panel earlier this week. The 465-page study details how the U.S. military mistakenly poisoned its own soldiers with two chemicals during Operation Desert Storm, leading to a number of debilitating symptoms from chronic muscle pain and digestive problems to memory loss and persistent skin lesions now collectively known as Gulf War illness (GWI). Worse still, the panel found that millions of dollars in funding for GWI research had been misappropriated, despite the fact that the illness afflicts nearly 25% of the 700,000 soldiers who fought in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia 17 years ago. (See TIME's A-Z Health Guide.)
1. On GWI's elusive nature: The illness has confounded scientists since 1991, when an unusually large number of Gulf War veterans began reporting a bizarre range of symptoms. As the Committee explains, "Gulf War illness does not fit neatly into our current concepts of disease. The underlying pathobiology of Gulf War illness is not apparent from routine clinical tests, and the illness appears not to be the result of a single cause producing a well-known effect." While the military insisted for years that GWI was another form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the panel concluded that there is no link between the two conditions. In fact, studies have shown that Gulf War veterans have lower rates of PTSD than veterans of other wars.
2. A veteran's description of GWI: "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 all 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."
3. On the complicated web of factors and likely causes: The panel determined that two chemicals are probably responsible for GWI, both of which were administered by the U.S. military to its own soldiers: the drug pyridostigmine bromide, given to troops to protect against nerve gas, and pesticides sprayed around barracks, dining halls and uniforms to protect against insects. But the panel did not rule out the myriad other toxic chemicals that soldiers faced on the ground, including "hundreds of burning oil-well fires that turned the Kuwaiti sky black with smoke, dramatic reports of uranium-tipped munitions, sandstorms, secret vaccines, and frequent chemical alarms, along with the government's acknowledgement of nerve-agent releases in theater ... Studies have also indicated that Gulf War veterans developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) [also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease] at twice the rate of nondeployed veterans, and that those stationed downwind from the Khamisiyah munitions demolitions have died from brain cancer at twice the rate of other Gulf War veterans."
4. On the lack of research and the misuse of federal funds: Since 1994, the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs have spent nearly $440 million on Gulf War research, or so the agencies said. The panel found that much of the money had been used to fund research wholly unrelated to GWI. In fact, a great deal of the DOD's "Gulf War portfolio" consisted of projects for currently deployed soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the DOD has slashed funding for Gulf War research from nearly $30 million annually to less than $5 million in 2006. "Consequently," the panel writes, "federal Gulf War research programs have not, as yet, succeeded in achieving the primary objective of Gulf War research, that is, to improve the health of Gulf War veterans."
This report is not for the faint of heart and not just because of its length. It serves as a grim reminder that sometimes a soldier's greatest enemy is the government he or she is fighting for. As the panel notes, it took nearly 20 years before the U.S. admitted that its use of Agent Orange had adversely affected soldiers during Vietnam, and it's taken just as long for Gulf War veterans to get GWI recognized as an actual medical condition. As the report's authors state, "addressing the serious and persistent health problems that affect Gulf War veterans as a result of their military service remains the obligation of the federal government and all who are indebted to the men and women who risked their lives in Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia 17 years ago. This obligation is made more urgent by the length of time these veterans have waited for answers." One can't help but wonder what challenges lie ahead for the thousands of men and women who are currently fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. And one can only hope that this time, history won't repeat itself.
The Verdict: Read