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One in Four Vets Suffers Gulf War Illness

BU experts own the science for landmark federal report

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Roberta White, a neuropsychologist and chair of environmental health at the School of Public Health, has been studying Gulf War syndrome in U.S. military veterans since 1991. Photo by Frank Curran

Effectively debunking years of government denials, Gulf War veterans suffering a host of neurological problems scored a huge victory last month in their struggle to legitimize their medical claims — thanks in part to public health experts at BU.

Comprising leading scientists, medical experts, and military veterans, a congressionally mandated panel charged with shaping federal health research related to the 1991 Middle East conflict has concluded that Gulf War syndrome is a real medical condition and that it afflicts at least one in four of the 697,000 U.S. veterans who fought in Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. The landmark report, presented two weeks ago by the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses to Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake, calls on Congress to appropriate $60 million for treatment of Gulf War vets.

“Veterans of the first Gulf War have been plagued by symptoms of ill health, including fatigue, problems with thinking, skin lesions, and gastrointestinal upset, since their return 17 years ago,” says Roberta White, the committee’s scientific director and chair of the department of environmental health at BU’s School of Public Health. “Despite their persistence and severity, these symptoms have often led to no diagnosis in a substantial portion of the war’s veterans.”

The 450-page report, which was prepared under the leadership of Lea Steele, the committee’s former scientific director, and released under White, brings together for the first time the full range of scientific research and government investigations on Gulf War illness. The report found that the condition fundamentally differs from stress-related syndromes seen after other wars and states that scientific evidence “leaves no question that Gulf War illness is a real condition.”

The report lays the blame for several health problems on the troops’ exposure to toxins, primarily in two self-inflicted contexts. In anticipation of a chemical attack, the drug pyridostigmine bromide was given to hundreds of thousands of troops. And to battle desert insects, living and dining areas, as well as tents and uniforms, were sprayed with pesticides.

The report also suggests that the U.S. demolition of an Iraqi munitions dump may have exposed 100,000 troops to nerve gas stored at the facility. Gulf War veterans have shown significantly higher rates of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, than veterans of other wars. And troops that were stationed downwind from the demolitions have died from brain cancer at twice the rate of other Gulf War veterans.

For almost two decades, the government and the military have downplayed veterans’ complaints, often referring to it as another form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For its report, the research committee evaluated hundreds of studies of Gulf War veterans, extensive research in other human populations, studies on toxic exposures in animals, and government investigations related to exposures in the Gulf War.

“The illness is probably controversial because it’s symptom-based and most veterans don’t have a common medical diagnosis that fits all of their symptoms,” White says. “It may also be controversial because people feel that it’s obvious that war is stressful and therefore stress must be causing the health symptoms, even though this has never been proven. In fact, it’s been discounted in quite a few studies.”

White has been studying Gulf War illnesses since 1993 and served as research director of one of the three initial VA-funded centers on Gulf War illness. Since the early 1990s the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs, among other federal entities, have funded SPH studies of Gulf War veterans and the effects of exposure to low-level sarin, pesticides, and pyridostigmine bromide.

The Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses has been based at BU since last year.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached cdanilof@bu.edu.


8 Comments on One in Four Vets Suffers Gulf War Illness

  • Mike in Sac on 12.03.2008 at 11:29 am

    Thank you Dr. White. I have suffered from this for years. When I initially went to the VA for it after Desert Storm they tested me and said they couldn’t find any problem. I requested the results and later found they had tested me for Malaria. Even though I was not symptomatic for that. They had no clue. I hope they do now.

  • Gary Hinkelman on 12.03.2008 at 7:13 pm

    Thank You, NOW WHAT DO I DO?

    I have suffered with GFWS for over 8 years now. But the AF doctors thought I was just making things up. I am retired now, yet still have all the same issues. Now with all this news and information has been pouring out this last month. Now what do I do? Where do I go for help? What treatments are there for us? How do I get a printed copy of the 450 page report.

    Thanks Gary

  • Ron Slee on 12.04.2008 at 5:02 pm

    Thanks, Does this mean DOD will Recognize Claims for GWS?

    I’ve have suffered with Gulf War syndrome for about 14 years it started with unexplainable stomach issue, Then a skin condition, loss of coordination, muscle fatigue, and finally Parkinson’s. The VA raters have been denying my claims for 2 years now and I finally a hearing this Monday Dec 8 will this new information help me.

    • steelrainsi91 on 12.06.2008 at 9:06 am

      Close the VA

      My name is Mike and I am a sick Gulf War Veteran. I will make this as short as possible and that will not be easy.
      I served for Ten years on active duty and a few in the National Guard. I am very proud of my service and wish I could still serve. In short I am Airborne Qualified, 63TD3P20 Soldier. I was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for my performance during the War. I have also been awarded the Army Commendation medal and 5 Army achievement medals and many others. I was an E5-P in E-7 slots (Sergeant First Class Positions) the last years of my active duty service. I was highly Trained Motivated and Good at what I did. I have all the paper work to back up what I say. And I have not even scratched the surface of my service to this Country. That I love so much. I am nobody special. But I have proved myself to be trust worthy and my opinion at one time counted. The Military was my life.
      Others and I are sick and have been for a very long time and need help. I am sorry that I am not made of steel. I am human after all. Never thought I would say that one.
      I lost my first wife to divorce and my first child to a problem with the pregnancy and my 1st wife took it much harder than me. Marriage over. My problems are the same as all the rest of us who are sick . So I will skip that part. Was re-married and had 1st child who was hospitalized twice for unknown reason. Buy that time I was pretty sick to. I have one other child who was born in 1998 who seems fine. I lost our home and all of our belongings in 1999 and became homeless with three kids and a great wife. (WOW) I still can’t believe it. I was on around 13 prescriptions at the time. And my fight with the VA had started years before and they knew I was sick. I was also in a very bad training accident in 1989 and that alone was causing me major problems. So I was double trouble to the VA. It was and has been a very long road and I did win my fight with the VA and am rated 100% and I still need medical attention and I can’t seem to get anyone at the VA to listen and understand my life is terrible and I have real medical problems and it not in my head. Well it is, the pain, headaches, and eyes and so on.
      We are sick, we served this Nation when the time came. It’s time for this Nation to step up to the plate and help us. We need it. Too many have already died to include my best friend. What is it going to take. For the VA help us.

      Mike R.


  • Dr. Kim Sullivan on 12.11.2008 at 1:11 pm

    please send comments or requests to rac@bu.edu

    Thank you all for your comments and concerns regarding Gulf War Illness and our new report from the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses (RAC). If I could ask you to email the RAC email directly with any specific questions or requests, we would be happy to get right back to you.

    The email is rac@bu.edu. Thank you.

  • R.C. on 02.18.2009 at 9:00 am

    No comments from others than vets?

    I was reading trough this news and it’s comments, and coudn’t understand why there are no support comments from regular citicens!

    These guys went to war for you, your freedom and your lifestyle, at least support them to have the consecuences of their sacrifice treated!

    I do want to say thank you to all of the vets that wrote comments and those that have been lucky enogh to survive AND don’t have any GWI for their huge efforts serving my country and I.

    Thanks you, hope you get your voice out there and get the treatments you need and deserve.


  • Anonymous on 07.25.2010 at 2:41 pm

    Gulf war syndrome

    I first joined the active duty US Army in 1987 when if you limped during or after the almost daily four mile trainning runs you were “told” to get it checked out at the nearest “TMC” ASAP. I was always told not to wait through any pain on my own and to get some help for it imeadiatly with the overly helpful US Army Medical staffs that were everywhere thats why these soldiers were there getting paid just like the rest of us ….to be used for the benefit of every soldier and to get everything documented on paper for future disability ratings if any soldier was injured in anyway. That was the standard mind set in the US Army for everyone that every soldier reguardless of rank talked about this constantly. Medics were embedded with everyday working soldiers in every platoon and squad and they noted if you limped or acted tired and lethargic without a reason, (no motivation label) and wouldnt let it stand without the issue eventually finding its way on paper in NCO ER’s because you didnt go with the flow of information. Four years later all that changed. If you went on sick call you were investigated for “malingering” if you mentioned anything about leg pains or joint pains muscle pains or headaches because all you really needed to do was pop another MOTRIN and “suck it up” what are you doing here on sick call for just that, or went too the TMC for the same thing more than once because you were dismissed as just making things up to get out of trainning from the very start.

  • Anonymous on 07.25.2010 at 2:44 pm

    where are all the comments?

    why is there no way to see all the responses for this article, including my own? Horrible support for this subject from the get go. Todd

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