HEALTH

A lingering mystery

Why are thousands of Gulf War vets feeling ill?

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 24 1997
HEALTH

A lingering mystery

Why are thousands of Gulf War vets feeling ill?

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 24 1997

A lingering mystery

HEALTH

Why are thousands of Gulf War vets feeling ill?

ANDREW PHILLIPS

Six years after serving with the U.S. army in the Persian Gulf, Steve Robertson is finally doing much better. He is back playing basketball and golf, and at six-foot-seven and 230 lb., he looks anything but frail. But for most of the five years after his return from Saudi Arabia, Robertson, now 47, was plagued with symptoms that have become all too familiar to those who track the mysterious ailment known as Gulf War syndrome.

Fatigue, diarrhea, chills, aching joints, memory loss, blistering skin and a hacking cough—Robertson had them all. He had spent four months in the desert as a military police staff sergeant guarding supply depots. He was exposed to pesticides and thick smoke from burning landfills, and took an experimental pill designed to counter the effects of chemical warfare. And he started feeling ill before his assignment was over.

“I thought I had a flu that wouldn’t go away,” he recalls now in his Washington office, where he lobbies on the issue for the American Legion.

“But even after I came home, I couldn’t shake it.

At times I couldn’t even remember my own phone number. That’s when I realized something was really wrong.”

Something was really wrong for thousands of Gulf War veterans. Some 80,000 of the 696,000 Americans who served in the Gulf in 1990 and 1991 have registered concern about their health with the department of veterans affairs; about 23,000 are receiving disability payments. Roughly 1,000 British veterans have filed claims with their government for health problems following the brief war to expel Iraq from Kuwait. And about 150 of the 2,500 Canadians who served there—mostly among those who were in field hospitals or attached to U.S. units in Saudi Arabia—have also complained of symptoms.

dostigmine bromide. Prescribed to combat the effects of a possible Iraqi nerve gas attack, the drug was experimental—but troops were not told that at the time.

Now, researchers are concluding that at least some of the sick veterans may be suffering the effects of combinations of those drugs and chemicals. Among the soldiers that scientists at the University of Texas and Duke University studied, some had worn pet flea collars, others believed they had experienced a chemical weapons attack, and a third group used heavy doses of a bug repellent containing deet, an ingredient of many commercial repellents. All appeared to be suffering from variations of a nerve disorder called organophosphateinduced delayed polyneuropathy that scientists have long associated with pesticide use.

But most of the new studies of Gulf War illness do not address the possibility of exposure to chemical weapons—a factor that many veterans consider crucial. For years, the Pentagon insisted it had no evidence that any U.S. servicemen had been subjected to Iraqi chemical agents. Then, last June, it announced that as many as 20,000 troops might have been exposed to nerve gas in March, 1991, when U.S. army engineers blew up an Iraqi ammunition bunker at Khamisiyah in southern Iraq. The Pentagon said UN inspectors had just discovered that the bunker contained mustard gas and sarin, a deadly nerve agent. That announcement destroyed the defence department’s credibility in the eyes of many veterans.

Other scientists, including members of a special committee appointed by President Bill Clinton to review the evidence, point in another direction. In a report to Clinton, they say the research to date suggests that psychological stress is likely a “major contributing factor.” Dr. Michael Hodgson, an internist at the University of Connecticut and a consultant on Gulf War illness to the American Legion, notes that after past wars, it took months for many soldiers to return home, giving them time to talk out their experiences with their comrades. But after the Gulf War, many were back within days—bringing the stress of war with them. Many veterans’ groups resist that kind of conclusion, saying it sidetracks the search for direct physical causes of their ailments. Hodgson disagrees. “Recognizing that there is a psychological component,” he says, “doesn’t mean it’s any less real.” But Gulf War veterans who have faced that reality for half a decade are still waiting for an explanation.

Scientists have no doubt that something is making all those men and women sick—but after six years, millions of dollars and a dozen major research studies over the past year, they still do not know what it is. Medical authorities do not recognize Gulf War syndrome as a distinct illness, but they have established that Gulf War veterans are three times more likely than other service vets to have serious health complaints. Two studies, by the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. navy, found higher rates of a host of symptoms—joint pain, chronic diarrhea, depression, skin rashes and fatigue.

Scientists and veterans’ groups have compiled a list of factors that might be linked to those signs of illness. Some soldiers were exposed to smoke from burning oil wells, petroleum products and, in some cases, depleted uranium from advanced allied weaponry. Many were given vaccines against exotic diseases or sprayed with pesticides. Others— like Robertson, whose condition improved in the past year after he started taking antiarthritis medication—took a drug called pyri-