In the two decades since the 1991 Persian Gulf war, medical researchers have struggled to explain a mysterious amalgam of problems in thousands of gulf war veterans, including joint pain, physical malaise and gastrointestinal disorders. In some medical circles, the symptoms were thought to be psychological, the result of combat stress.
But recent research is bolstering the view that the symptoms, known collectively as gulf war illness, are fundamentally biological in nature. In the latest example, researchers at Georgetown University say they have found neurological damage in gulf war veterans reporting symptoms of the disease.
What is the Biological Evidence of Gulf War Illness?
Using magnetic resonance imaging to study the brains of gulf war veterans before and after exercise, the researchers discovered evidence of damage in parts of their brains associated with heart rate and pain. Such damage was not evident in the control group, which included nonveterans and healthy veterans.
Such neurological damage, the researchers theorize, caused the veterans to be more sensitive to pain, to feel easily fatigued and to experience loss of short-term “working memory,” all symptoms associated with gulf war illness.
Two other studies released by Georgetown this year have also pointed to neurological damage in the brains of veterans reporting symptoms of gulf war illness, including one that showed abnormalities in the nerve cells linking parts of the brain involved in processing feelings of pain and fatigue.
The research makes clear that “gulf war illness is real,” said Rakib U. Rayhan, the principal author of the new study. “There is objective evidence that something is wrong in the brains of these veterans.”
Studies by the Department of Veterans Affairs have estimated that as many as 250,000 of the nearly 700,000 service members who served in the Middle East in 1990 and 1991 have reported symptoms of gulf war illness, which is also known as chronic multisymptom illness.
Government Denies that Gulf War Syndrome is Real
Gulf war illness has been the source of much frustration and dispute practically since veterans first reported symptoms in the 1990s. Many veterans say that their complaints were initially dismissed as psychological. Many also believe that their problems are the result of exposure to nerve agents, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals, but that the government has been slow, or unwilling, to pinpoint causes.
Even some government researchers have made that case. At a Congressional hearing in March, Dr. Steven S. Coughlin, an epidemiologist who once worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs, asserted that the department had systematically played down the neurological basis of gulf war illness. At the same hearing, a member of an advisory panel to the department said the agency still seemed guided by the view that symptoms of gulf war illness were stress-induced.
“This is a throwback to early speculation from the 1990s that there was no problem, or that veterans just had random, disconnected symptoms,” testified Dr. Lea Steele, a Baylor University epidemiologist who was a member of the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses.
Complaints of Gulf War Illness Ignored
Many veterans, like Ronald Brown, who was part of the Georgetown study, say their problems after returning from Kuwait in 1991 were not taken seriously.
An infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division, he was at a base in southern Iraq when engineers destroyed the nearby Kamisiya ammunition depot containing nerve gas. The Pentagon has said that as many as 100,000 American troops could have been exposed to the toxic gas in that demolition.
Mr. Brown, 45, says that before the invasion, he was in top physical condition, regularly scoring high on Army physical fitness tests. But after Kamisiya was destroyed, he began experiencing headaches, nausea and shortness of breath. When he returned to the United States, he says he failed a fitness test badly. “I plain and simple couldn’t get enough air,” he said.
After leaving the Army in 1992, he said his health continued to deteriorate, to the point where he could not hold jobs. Doctors gave him diagnoses of migraines, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and chronic fatigue syndrome. They gave him medications that did not seem to help and offered treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.
“I was told I had these problems because I was depressed. And yes, I was depressed,” Mr. Brown said. “But that’s part of having so many things wrong. That’s not what caused it.”
VA Benefits for Gulf War Syndrome
If you need help with your Gulf War Syndrome claim please contact Veterans Help Group. We are committed to staying on top of all the research and news about Gulf War Illness and VA disability compensation for Gulf War syndrome. There is increasing biological evidence of gulf war illness: it’s not all in your head — and you deserve help.