gulf war illnesses

Military health: The insurmountable gulf

In 1990 and 1991, the United States deployed some 700,000 military personnel to the Gulf to form a coalition with the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and several other countries to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The seven-month campaign resulted in few coalition casualties. But soon after returning home, about 30% of US veterans began to get sick. Their illnesses were difficult for doctors to understand.

They shared a cluster of symptoms — including severe fatigue, chronic pain, gastrointestinal disorders and cognitive problems. But few individuals had all of the symptoms, and there were many proposed causes. The destruction of chemical-weapons repositories was a leading suspect. Troops also marched past burning oil wells, slept in tents doused with pesticides and received new vaccines and pills to protect them from diseases and biological and nerve agents.

“From the beginning, the VA has refused to honestly face the problems that face veterans,” said Joel Graves, a Gulf War veteran who until last year had served on a committee advising the VA on research priorities related to the illness.

Graves and others contend that the agency has refused to recognize Gulf War illness as a unique physiological condition, maintaining instead that it is psychosomatic or the result of stress. The VA, they claim, has obstructed research into Gulf War illness, stacked scientific review panels with members who would favour a psychological explanation and defanged the research advisory committee (RAC) that Graves served on. As a result, critics contend, thousands of soldiers have found it difficult to get a diagnosis or related health benefits. At the meeting, James Binns, an attorney and chair of the RAC, called the VA’s actions “morally and intellectually bankrupt”.

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