Two decades have passed since the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War. For many of those that served in the Gulf, the subsequent days, weeks, months, and years have passed slowly. Chronic pain, gastrointestinal disorders, extreme fatigue, depression, lack of coordination, joint and muscle aches, shortness of breath, mental confusion and memory loss are constant companions.
Informational data derived from studies conducted by the United States Department of Veteran’s Affairs indicate as many as 250,000 of the almost 700,000 service men and women who served in the Middle East during the deployment in 1990 and 1991 report symptoms of Gulf War Illness, also commonly known as multi-symptom illness.
Upon return from their overseas deployment, many of our military sought medical intervention for a diverse array of troubling medical problems. Like most hardened combat veterans, the majority of the men and women enduring symptoms were hesitant to complain. After all they had survived, a bellyache, headache or aching joints were to be tolerated without complaint. However, as the pain intensified and the mysterious illness led to the inability to function in daily life, medical help was demanded. Sadly, many medical practitioners, both military and civilian, diagnosed their symptoms as psychological, the unfortunate result of prolonged combat stress. Patients were offered a “Band-Aid” composed of pain management counseling, anti-anxiety medications, pain pills and morphine drips without ever addressing the root of the problem.
Today, 20 years after the disease was brought to the attention of the American Military, new research supports the view that the symptoms, known collectively as Gulf War Illness, are biological in nature.
Researchers at Georgetown University recently reported they have found neurological damage in Gulf War Veterans reporting symptoms of the mysterious malaise. Researchers employed magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate the brains of Gulf War Veterans both prior and after exercise. Researchers report the study validates damage in parts of the brain associated with pain and heart rate. Brain damage was not found in the control group, which included healthy veterans as well as civilians.
Researcher theorize the type of neurological damage found in Gulf War Veterans makes them acutely sensitive to pain, causes them to experience short-term memory loss and fatigue: classic symptoms commonly reported by ill Gulf War veterans.
The extensive study published in the online medical journal PLOS on June 14, 2013, does not to attempt to explain the cause of the brain damage. The study indicated distinctively different patterns of damage in the two veteran groups, indicating that the disease follows different pathways in different people.
The authors of the study hope their findings, along with other ongoing research will offer clues in developing diagnostic test and effective treatments. Diagnosis of the illness is currently limited to self-reporting. Medical science had no definitive modality of treatment.
Two additional studies released by Georgetown University scientist also evidenced neurological damage in brains of veterans reporting pain, fatigue and memory loss. One study indicated abnormalities in the fragile nerve cells linking various parts of the brain involved in processing sensations of fatigue or pain.
Publication of the studies helps veterans prove their point. For all the many times they were told, “it’s all in your head”, the study proves that Gulf War Illness is real and not just in their imagination. Rakib U. Rayhan, the primary author of the latest study states, “There is objective evidence that something is wrong in the brains of these veterans.”
Critics of the study note that the subjects of the Georgetown study were self-selected and limited in number. 28 veterans and 10 non-veterans were tested.
The Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Drew A. Helmer, called the studies, “very preliminary” but also “a very important step forward.”
However, the leader of a group that studied Gulf War Illness in 1996, Dr. John Bailar, an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, said the new study does not provide sufficient data to determine, if in fact, the veteran’s symptoms are linked to their deployment in Kuwait or other influencing factors.
“I am not questioning whether a substantial proportion of veterans of Desert Storm have symptoms related to their service,” said Dr. Bailar. “I am questioning whether those symptoms have any cause other than the stress of war itself.”
Because so many Gulf War Veterans are convinced their problems originate and result from their exposure to noxious chemicals and nerve agents, the past 20 years have been fraught with frustration. Veterans are angry: feeling their government has been hesitant or unwilling to pinpoint and acknowledge the cause of their misery.
Dr. Steven S. Couglin, an epidemiologist previous on the staff of the Department of Veterans Affairs, testifying at a Congressional hearing in March 2013, stated that he felt like the government systematically down played the neurological basis of Gulf War Illness and seemed guided by their belief that the mysterious symptoms of Gulf War Illness were stress related.
Dr. Lea Steele, a Baylor University epidemiologist, also testified at the March Congressional hearings. Dr. Steel, a former member of the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses stated, “This is a throwback to early speculation from the 1990s that there was no problem, or that veterans just had random, disconnected symptoms.”
In its June 14, 2013 online publication, USA Today reported that Eric K. Shineski, Secretary of Veterans Affairs had taken action to replace members of the advisory committee and restrict the committees independence. The USA Today report stated, Advocates for gulf war veterans say the changes are meant to rein in a committee that has consistently been more aggressive than the department in saying that gulf war illness is a physical condition related to exposure to toxins.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs defends its research into Gulf War Illness stating, “VA is clear in its commitment to treating these health issues and does not endorse the notion some have put forward that these physical health symptoms experienced by Gulf War veterans are a result of PTSD or other mental health issues from military service. We know that much work remains and are committed to continuing to improve the provision of disability benefits, health care benefits, and other benefits and services to these veterans.
The June 24, 2012 online edition of Veterans Today reported, “The data that shows VA has not done well by the Gulf War Veterans of 90-91- Operation Desert Storm is piling up. These veterans are very ill and many have died in the intervening 21 years. The Gulf War Veterans truly feel like the Abandoned Forgotten Veterans. They are feeling like they were placed in the Expectant Triage Category at the time of the War and true action to help them has not occurred.”
Today, Persian Gulf War veterans have new reason to hope. Persian Gulf War advocates continue to fight for legislation and funding for research and treatment for this insidious disease that compromises, damages and destroys.
By: Marlene Affeld
Gulf War Illness- Fibromyalgia Current News