Thousands of veterans who served during the Gulf War in the 1990s continue to report mysterious symptoms, especially short-term memory loss and debilitating fatigue, over 20 years later.
The collection of ailments that active duty soldiers and veterans reported after the operation to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait ended in 1991 were known as Gulf War syndrome, Gulf War illness and most recently, as chronic multi-symptom illness.
To address the health complaints of veterans, U.S. officials set up the Gulf War Registry, which involved self-reporting the kinds of ailments that the veterans had. As of March 31 of this year, the registry included a total of 145,612 veterans enrolled. That’s nearly one in five of those who were deployed.
Initially, military and Veterans Affairs officials said the ailments stemmed from post-traumatic stress disorder, which irked the veterans and legislators who wanted better explanations.
Over the years, the suspected culprits for gulf war illness have included the experimental anthrax vaccine and an anti-nerve agent pill given to soldiers before the war, exposures to chemical agents from the bombings of Iraqi chemical bunkers, fumes from the oil well fires that Saddam ordered, and other toxins in the environments.
US officials have said none of these factors are responsible for Gulf War syndrome. Coalition forces from Britain complained of similar symptoms as US soldiers, and the British soldiers were also administered a vaccine.
In response to concerns of French soldiers who took part in Desert Storm, the French government commissioned a health study, and the results were published in a 2006 report, which did not find clusters of ailments similar to those of US and British soldiers. The French soldiers were not given the anthrax vaccine in preparation for Desert Storm, and instead were given antibiotics, French officials said.
While progress may be slow, lawmakers in Washington are taking notice. Last month, Congressman Mike Coffman introduced the Gulf War Health Research Reform Act (House Resolution 4261), which gives greater independence to the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illness from the Veterans Affairs Department.
Paul Sullivan, who helped write and pass the Persian Gulf War Veterans Act, had some scathing remarks for the VA. Sullivan accused the VA of blocking a 1998 law that supported research, treatment, and benefits for Gulf War veterans, and he supports a bill to give the VA Secretary greater authority to “remove the top VA leaders who continue failing the 250,000 ill Gulf War veterans."
The VA denied the allegations, saying they support the research efforts to improve veterans’ treatment and continue to welcome input and advice from the Research Advisory Committee.