Politics & Government

Gulf War syndrome a real illness, panel concludes

WASHINGTON — Gulf War illness is a real medical condition that's affected at least 175,000 combat veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, according to a report released Monday.

However, federal research into the causes behind the mysterious malady has "not been effective," and the report by the congressionally mandated panel suggested that politics or financial concerns might have played a role.

"There is also a common perception that federal policymakers have not vigorously pursued key research in this area and that federal agencies have disincentives — whether political or fiscal — for providing definitive answers to Gulf War health questions," said the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illness.

The report compared the foot-dragging and denials to the treatment of earlier troops who claimed that they'd been dangerously exposed to Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides in Vietnam and radiation during World War II.

In both cases, the claims turned out to be true.

"Government has been very slow to accept what the research shows," said James Binns, the committee's chairman and a former top Defense Department official.

"These problems have for too long been denied or trivialized," said Binns, speaking at the committee meeting where the report was made public.

Committee members said troops were exposed to a "toxic soup" of chemicals. However, they laid the blame for Gulf War illness primarily on two causes: pesticides sprayed on the troops during deployment and pyridostigmine bromide, an anti-nerve agent.

The small white pills hadn't been approved for nerve agent protection at the time, but the Food and Drug Administration had given the military a temporary waiver for their use to protect troops in case they were exposed to nerve gas.

The committee met Monday at Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters, two blocks from the White House.

Thanking the members for their work, VA Secretary James Peake, a former Army surgeon general, said, "I personally neither denied nor trivialized the issues of our veterans, having been among them myself. It's not something we are going to wash away."

The Veterans Affairs Department didn't respond to the committee's criticism but said that Peake had directed the agency "to review and respond to the committee's recommendations in the near future."

The report, six years in the making, should be a boon to Gulf War veterans who for years have been trying to convince the VA to recognize their medical problems.

Often too ill to work, many have been unable to get medical disability payments from the VA because they couldn't prove that their ailments were real and related to their military service.

Committee member Steve Smithson, the deputy director for claims for the American Legion, said he hoped the report would trigger "sweeping changes" in compensation for Gulf War veterans.

Originally called Gulf War Syndrome, the ailment has become an umbrella for a variety of unexplained illness, including chronic headaches, dizziness, memory loss, fatigue, skin rashes, joint and muscle pain, and respiratory problems as well as brain cancer and other more serious neurological conditions.

Government officials and some scientists have said that stress and psychiatric problems were the cause, while other scientists and veterans argued for other causes.

The committee said it had studied numerous reports about Gulf War illness from this country and overseas and concluded that it was "a real condition with real causes and serious consequences."

"This is not caused by stress, and it's not a psychiatric illness," said Lea Steele, an epidemiologist at Kansas State University and the committee's scientific director for five years. "VA doctors paying attention to this should no longer treat their patients as if they had psychiatric illness."

The United States invaded Iraq in January 1991 in retaliation for its attack on Kuwait the previous August.

Besides pesticides and pyridostigmine bromide, the committee said, it couldn't rule out exposure to sarin, a toxic nerve agent, as a possible cause of Gulf War illness as well. Troops were exposed to sarin when coalition forces blew up an Iraqi missile arsenal after the war.

Other potential causes were breathing the thick, black smoke from the massive oil-well fires ignited by Iraqi troops as they fled Kuwait, and the use of multiple vaccines.

A quarter to a third of the 700,000 troops who served in the war suffer from Gulf War illness. Less than 10 percent have recovered or show improvement, the report says.