Gulf War Syndrome is the name given to a variable combination of psychological and physical complaints experienced by veterans of the Persian Gulf War.
It began in Indiana in early 1992, when soldiers in two reserve units that had fought in the Persian Gulf war began to suffer a puzzling array of symptoms. Some became unusually fatigued, and others said that their joints ached. They experienced headaches, rashes and hair loss, and their memories occasionally failed them. In some cases, the symptoms were severe enough to require hospitalization.
Of the 697,000 veterans who served in the Gulf War hundreds, and then thousands, of veterans began showing up at hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs with these and other symptoms. Eventually, 10,000 veterans asked for physical examinations to see if they had what has come to be called Gulf War Syndrome.
The sequence of events leading to the identification of Gulf War Syndrome has occurred many times in recent years. First, there are complaints of severe but undiagnosable symptoms. Then, the sufferers hear about others experiencing the same symptoms and begin to trade information. Then there is the naming of a possible new disease, and finally there is a plea for an investigation of the symptom clusters.
Experts say such problems begin with real suffering that is often dismissed as psychosomatic - or, to use a more contemporary counterpart, "stress-related." Among complaints of this sort, the ones closest to acquiring status as recognized diseases are "sick building syndrome" and "multiple chemical sensitivity."
There is no shortage of possibilities. Researchers are pursuing at least a half-dozen different explanations for the veterans' miseries, but none seems likely to account for all of them.
Shortly after the war ended, military doctors discovered that several sick soldiers were infected with Leishmania tropica, a parasite transmitted through the bites of infected sandflies. The parasite, which normally causes only skin lesions, had invaded the soldiers' bone marrow and internal organs, causing fevers, fatigue, coughs and diarrhea. Researchers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center have confirmed at least a dozen such cases. But most of the ailing soldiers tested negative for the parasite.
A second theory holds that Gulf War veterans were poisoned by their own high-tech weapons. Some U.S. tanks and artillery shells were coated with depleted uranium (DU), a byproduct of the material that fuels nuclear weapons. Because DU is so hard, it helps protect tanks from enemy fire, and shells that are coated with it can pierce conventional armor like a knife. As long as it is intact, DU poses little danger to people. But on impact, it is released.
Other theories have included exposure to chemical or biological weapons, pesticides, nerve gas, vaccines, medications and exposure to smoke from burning oil wells.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of service people have developed unexplained ailments since returning from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The symptoms include aching muscles, irritability, thick saliva, weight loss, skin rashes, memory loss, along with chronic fevers, labored breathing, and headaches.
Additionally, an excess of birth defects and stillbirths among children of soldiers have been recorded as well as cases of motor neuron disease and leukemia.
Are the symptoms related to the Persian Gulf experience?
Can these symptoms be connected to any exposure experienced in the Persian Gulf?
Are these multiple symptoms related?
Is there any other explanation?
Are further medical tests indicated?
Is there a psychological component to the problem?
What treatment or alleviation of the symptoms do you recommend?
Is treatment available at the Veterans Administration hospital?