Gulf War Syndrome Is a Real Illness, Federal Study Finds

By Eliza Strickland | November 18, 2008 8:26 am

soldiers gas masksThousands of Gulf War veterans who complained of memory and concentration problems, rashes, headaches, and muscle pain following their return from Kuwait and Iraq were suffering from a real illness and weren’t just feeling the aftereffects of combat stress, according to a new congressionally mandated report. The report broke with most earlier studies by concluding that two chemical exposures were direct causes of the disorder: the drug pyridostigmine bromide, given to troops to protect against nerve gas, and pesticides that were used — and often overused — to protect against sand flies and other pests [Los Angeles Times].

One-quarter of the 700,000 U.S. troops who took part in Operation Desert Storm have reported symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome, according to the report, which fails to identify any cure for the malady. It also notes that few veterans afflicted with Gulf War illness have recovered over time [CNN]. The report calls for at least $60 million in new federally funded research on the syndrome and potential treatments.

The new assessment contradicts the findings of an earlier study conducted by the prestigious Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, blaming stress and other unknown causes for the soldiers’ symptoms. “Everyone quotes the Institute of Medicine documents as meaning nothing’s going on here,” said Roberta F. White, … the congressional panel’s scientific director. “Some people feel that the IOM reports have been permission to ignore these guys” [Los Angeles Times]. Veterans groups say that they hope the new findings will make it easier for veterans to get medical treatment for the ailment.

The report did put one theory of the cause of Gulf War Syndrome to rest: With regards to exposure to depleted uranium contained in munitions, the report states that ” the specific types of human health effects that have been described in relation to DU and uranium exposure have little apparent relationship to the pattern of chronic symptoms associated with Gulf War illness.” Nearly 320 tons of depleted uranium were used during the war, and much of it remains in the local environment [USA Today].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: The Gulf War Within investigated vets’ symptoms back in 1997
DISCOVER: Chemicals at War explains that common chemicals could be the culprit
DISCOVER: A Syndrome for Every War examines the hypothesis that stress was the root cause
80beats: VA Tested Drugs That Could Produce Psychosis on War Veterans

Image: U.S. Army

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Claire

    The similarity in symptom clusters with GWI very closely resemble those surrounding Morgellons Disease. Some of the diagnoses associated with Morgellons sufferers are: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, MS, and ALS, among others. The symptoms of short term memory loss, “brain fog”, joint pain and swelling, rashes, etc all exist with GWI as well as Morgellons.
    The association is so striking that some within the Morgellons community speculate that GWI is either a variant of the Morgellons reported in the US, or is an earlier stage of it.
    Medical science should perform skin scrapings and biopsies on some of these men to determine whether the hallmark “mysterious fibers” are present in the deeper layers of skin.

  • Daniel

    The existence of Morgellon’s is even more questionable and spurious than Gulf War Syndrome. (I had to look it up on Wikipedia, since I had never heard of it. Apparently, most dermatologists and psychiatrists deny its existence.)

  • Sarah

    Not that I know anything about it, but Wikipedia? How is Wikipedia trustworthy?

  • Meghan

    What exactly happens to these people that claim to have this?
    I could definetly see what doctor’s just looked passed these people and thought of it as just being tired or hurt from war. It’s probably nice for the veterans to not feel like their crazy anymore.

  • Niels

    Please note the similarity between the way Morgellons patients are treated and the way Gulf War victims were dismissed. In both cases, a real disease was allowed to spread in epidemic proportions while doctors dismissed patient symtpoms as “all in the head.” In both cases, there was information even from the very beginning, suggesting an infectious basis, and it was ignored in place of a quick handwaving psychiatric diagnosis and drugging the patient with dangerous and inappropriate psychotropics.

    Re: is an excellent article on the basis for Gulf War Illness, the coverup, and the abysmal way victims of the illness are treated by the medical establishment:

    Mind Games

    Problems escalated as vets fell into the clutches of the psychiatric
    industry. As is a routine failing in psychiatric diagnosis, proper and
    full physical examinations were either not done or their results ignored.
    Tests were performed that added confusion, their results failing to
    describe any specific illness because the veterans had such a panoply of

    According to William Baumzweiger, M.D., Gulf veterans he examined while
    working at the VA from 1993 to 1997 exhibited conflicting and mutually
    exclusive symptoms.

    “Nobody asked how come they were showing so many contrary manifestations
    all at once,”he said. VA psychiatrists and other doctors, he said, “threw
    every diagnosis in the book at them, rather than get to the bottom of the
    problem,” adding that he believes that practice continues.

    As a trained neurologist, he said, “I knew this didn’t fit, and I said so
    from 1994 on. I was told when at the VA center in West Los Angeles that it
    was VA policy that there was no such thing as Gulf War Syndrome. It came
    from the central VA in Washington. I was told [that] by Dr. Dean Norman,
    who was the head of the hospital. I told him I didn’t know that disease
    had anything to do with administrative policies. He got mad at
    me. … These are political positions. It isn’t real medicine.”

    Baumzweiger was ousted from his job, acknowledging that some of his VA
    superiors were incensed at his actions on behalf of veterans, which
    included testifying in September 1996 before a House subcommittee chaired
    by Rep. Shays.

    “They were so mad at me,” Baumzweiger said. “But I don’t care. I mean,
    what I was saying was true. … There were lives at stake. And these
    people really were sick. They were horribly sick. They still are.”Norman
    failed to return calls made to his office.

    According to Baumzweiger and others, the lives of many veterans fell apart
    as they suffered brain damage and other physical effects and became
    increasingly nonfunctional, undergoing divorce, losing jobs, turning to
    street drugs and alcohol, having accidents, being arrested, ending up in
    legal troubles and even prison or psychiatric institutions.

    Leisure described one veteran who was bleeding internally, his spleen so
    enlarged it had to be removed. “I found him in a psychiatric ward,” she
    said. “No wonder he was upset. He had so many medical problems that
    weren’t being dealt with. They ignored his blood count and his internal
    bleeding. It was pathetic.”

    Arvid Brown was one of the many interviewed by Freedom who was told “it’s
    all in your head” when he turned to the VA for help. Cooperating at every
    step with VA doctors, he accepted and took the psychotropic drugs
    prescribed for him, including Depakote, Prozac and Elavil. After Brown
    became so disoriented that he tried to step out of an upper-story window
    and a moving car, Janyce took the pills away. He was put on Pamelor, which
    made him hallucinate.

    “When we complained that the drugs were making him hallucinate,” said
    Janyce, “they upped the dose.” On another visit, a VA psychologist
    persisted in demanding that Brown be treated for anxiety before anything
    could be done for him.

    Copies of medical records in Brown’s possession confirm an effort by VA
    doctors from the outset to label his symptoms “anxiety attacks”or
    “post-traumatic stress syndrome” — in other words, psychological in
    nature — and to pressure him into taking psychiatric drugs.

    Brown alleged that the VA lost some of his records and falsified
    others. And he was told that neither he, his wife nor his two children —
    born after his Gulf service with serious birth defects — would receive any
    treatment until he and his wife submitted to psychiatric examinations.

    Arvid received chemotherapy treatments at a civilian hospital and continues
    to take antibiotics. Both he and Janyce believe their family’s multiple
    health problems stem from Arvid’s exposure to chemical and biological
    weapons and other toxins.

  • Claire

    So, Daniel, this congressionally mandated federal study is “spurious” yet “Wikipedia” is reliable? What on earth would your motive be for making such a statement?
    In addition to the similarity in the symptoms mentioned in my earlier post, a large proportion of Morgellons victims report that the onset of their symptoms followed an exposure to pesticides. Compare that with the following from the GWI report:
    “two chemical exposures were direct causes of the disorder: the drug pyridostigmine bromide, given to troops to protect against nerve gas, and pesticides that were used ? and often overused ? to protect against sand flies and other pests [Los Angeles Times].”

  • mike

    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, 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.

  • mike

    Close the VA and save money and give the Veterans medical insurance if needed. That is what I would like to see happen.

    More time will tell. But for the 1st time in a long time I feel we have a small chance concerning the VA. The VA has shown us all in the past that the truth has no meaning to them. We are the liars and just looking for a free ride.
    and dont forget it’s all in your head. Here take some more psych meds. We all know the story. So lets hope and pray for a change that is long over do concerning sick Gulf War Veterans. I would like to see the VA shut down and all Veterans given medical cards. Have the soldier rated during out-processing from there prospective branches and put all those VA employees who treat us like we owe them out of work. Make the ones who can go out and get a real job. We are talking about the medical industry jobs should not be a problem for the ones who do thier jobs and are good at what they do and for the ones who had no choice but to seek employment from the Government so they are protected against all the mistakes and lack of knowledge hit the road. I am not sorry I feel this why I have given the VA more chances than I would have ever received during my 10 years of active duty service. It is called dereliction of duty. And game over.

    Mike R.

  • Kelly

    Daniel’s comments simply reflect urban myth (and yes many urban myths are repeated in Wikipedia etc. because the author is either unaware of conflicting evidence or it doesn’t fit their theory so they ignore it. This is called confirmation bias). Anytime you repeat something often enough, people forget the source and simply believe it to be “fact.” It’s rule number one in propaganda. So next time someone claims these patients have “medically unexplained symptoms” the right question is “sez who?”

    One huge issue that is rarely touched on is insurance money. There is currently a huge battle in psychiatry over revisions to DSM-V and the World Health Organization’s ICD-11 which are the basis for insurance billing.

    Psychiatric liasons (psychosomatic medicine) and behavioralists (behavioral medicine) are trying to expand the boundaries of psychosomatic disorders. This is because many organic diseases are currently billed as diseases not beliefs.

    Many, such as researchers with the King’s Centre for Military Health Research, King’s College in London, have devoted their entire careers to proving that organic diseases are actually psychogenic. Many have financial ties to disability and health insurance companies (Unumprovident and PRISMA for example) who stand to lose millions if patients with ME/CFS (a brain disease G93.3 in the ICD-10), fibromyalgia and gulf war syndrome for example have a “real” disease.

    Why? Disability companies only pay two years of disability payments vs. a lifetime of payments if they can claim the patient has a “stress” or mental disorder.

    Also, treating patients with drugs means these psychiatrists don’t get paid for their recommended “therapy.” Based on these psychiatrist’s “belief” that these patients have a psychogenic disorder, they have no actual proof such as a blood test, they recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that challenges patient’s “belief” that they have a real disease.

    Claims that the evidence shows that CBT is the best therapy are based on studies that included many patients in addition to patients with the actual disease as diagnosed by clinicians. They also don’t mention that people may have been better able to cope, but their clinical symptoms did not change.

    Scientific misconduct by these researchers is rarely investigated and because much of it is in medical journals, the public never hears about it. For example they define “fatigue” as a feeling of a lack of energy, weariness and aversion to effort and measure it with psychiatric scales. Unfortunately, their definition does not jibe with patient’s descriptions and medical tests showing that it is profound exhaustion brought on by physical effort often leaving patients unable to exert additional effort for over 48 hours. That is neither normal and has nothing to do with being “tired” or “depressed”. That is extremely pathogenic.

    They never mention the biomedical proof that consistently proves them wrong. Or they try to smear the researchers and their studies by claiming the researchers are tied to the pharmaceutical companies in hopes that the actual research results will be ignored.

    Anyone can search for medical journal articles through
    However, many of the journals charge money to read anything other than the abstract. About the only ones that are free are ones that support the psychosomatic “opinion”.

    Dr. Martin Pall, a biological researcher at the University of Washington, explains much of this “battle” in his book, Explaining ‘Unexplained Illnesses’: Disease Paradigm for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Fibromyalgia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Gulf War Syndrome. His medical research indicates he may have a piece of the puzzle.

    These diseases (illness, as used by psychiatrists trying to re-label GWS to fit their opinion, is the sociological word for how patients perceive their illness not the actual disease itself) are strongly rooted in biological evidence. Just because someone hasn’t heard of the research doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    It might be said that the only people who don’t believe that these patients have a disease, are people who don’t have them and don’t have contact with someone who does. People aren’t stupid. Most people don’t need to go to the doctor to know whether they have a horrible case of the flu. These patients don’t need a doctor to know something is terribly wrong. And even if some of them have psychological problems, it doesn’t mean they can’t have a broken leg or even a severe disease also.

  • http://yahoo ALVIN

    It does not exactly help matters when there is a international cover up in practice on this subject.

  • Keith

    I stubbled across your article. I am one of the same as the rest of you. I am one who is on the merry-go-round, of prove it, with the VA. I am a Desert Shield/Storm Vet. My claim has been up in Washington for years already. This was suppose to be a EXPEDITED claim from 2006, we are now in 2010. Since my health has become much worse, I tried to put in another claim with MORE disabilities, that has rared it’s ugly head since 2006, down in St. Petersburg, they can’t find A LOT of my medical records and have asked me to provide for them. Not to metion a question before for my deployment to South West Asia, it is on my DD214, they want more evidence that I was there. Since my original claim is in Washington. Why don’t they correspond with Washington? Or other VA’s.
    Each time, because it is Gulf War Syndrome they loose my paperwork, and fight me, tooth & nail. Even though I came back sick. I was in the hospital with some freaky stuff, April of 1991. But…hey…they said that was all in my mind. 1st major episode.
    Again hospitalized many months later, for many weeks and it was all in my head. That was all they told me for years. You get pretty sick of hearing the same stuff over and over again from the Doctors. I often stayed at home in bed, whatever was going on with me, missing work, lossing another job. There was only one job that I was able to keep long enough to be put on FMLA. Now, I am worse then I have been and it has been years since I have worked because of this illness. Through all these years, I have been through many jobs, lost my house, bankrupt twice, and in financial ruin. They say that I am young enough to get a job and work…(according to the VA & Social Security). WORK WHERE?? I am on over 25 different meds, and narcotics to help me with the pain. Who is going to hire me and allow me to go lay down when I can’t sit, stand or function like I am suppose too?
    When we were leaving our house, because we lost it to financial bust, there was a Document that was sent to me from the VA that said to get rid of all of my equiptment, because of it being contanimated. LEFT THE BIG QUESTION RUNNING THROUGH MY MIND….WHAT?? Did anyone out there get one of the same letters? I have looked everywhere for it. But we have moved so much since 2004, that I don’t know if it got lost in the move. I wish I would had gone to the news with the letter, if it nothing, then why should I get rid of my equiptment?
    But with all of this GWI that I have, my wife has many of the same symtoms as I, and my childern have chronic fatigue, fibro, my youngest has all sorts of health issues.
    But hey it is all in my head..right?
    I am thankful for people like you to get the info. out there. Allowing us who are living this nightmare, able to say;…”Hey…I am still here…and voiceing what has been totally wrong for a long time.” Just waiting for some kind of justice, mircle cure, something. Thanks again for doing what you have done.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar