Gulf War illness: It’s physical, you can see it, and there is good news on treatment

Research shows repeatedly that Gulf War illness is a physical ailment

by Kelly Kennedy

Bergmann & Moore

Every last bit of new research on Gulf War illness shows that it’s a physical, not mental, ailment.

The one in four sick Gulf War vets—or about 250,000 people who served in 1991 in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia—already know that.

There have been many reasons for the confusion: Some veterans were sickened after service in the Persian Gulf, while others were not. Veterans serving different countries suffered different symptoms. Even veterans serving in the same units had different symptoms. And the symptoms themselves seemed to have no logic.

There were also some red herrings that, while they may have their own issues, research has shown do not seem to be tied to Gulf War illness, including depleted uranium and vaccinations.

But quite a few things have changed since 1991. Scientists have a better understanding of what veterans were exposed to, including a CIA admission 10 years after the fact that the United States blew up armed rockets at Khamisiyah, Iraq, and exposed thousands of troops to Sarin gas. Congress mandated that Veterans Affairs create an independent board in 1997  to look at Gulf War illness research after Congress determined VA’s work on Gulf War illness was “irreparably flawed” and that VA had focused most of its attention on non-existing psychiatric causes of the illness—a viewpoint some believe VA continues to take today. And with that new board, the research itself has changed, and new findings and potential treatments have been found.

Just this week, scientists discovered that some Gulf War veterans may have genetic differences that caused them to metabolize chemicals found in anti-nerve agents pills, insecticide and nerve agent differently, finds a new study published in the Environmental Health journal. This potentially helps explain why some veterans were sickened while others were not.

Scientists have long wondered why some 1991 Gulf War veterans developed a series of symptoms, including fatigue, joint pain, indigestion, memory problems and dizziness, after the war ended, while other troops in the same areas returned home healthy. About one in four veterans, or 250,000 people, developed Gulf War illness.

Perhaps, they thought, some service members broke down chemicals differently than other vets did, forcing the chemicals out of their systems before they could do any damage, while others processed the chemicals in a way that caused damage to their nervous systems.

Lea Steele, research professor at Baylor University Institute of Biomedical Studies, conducted the research. She has also shown that troops who took more doses of anti-nerve-agent pills and who used insecticides and bug repellents were more likely to develop the illness.

That research may explain why troops in different areas developed different symptoms. Steele found that, while troops in Saudi Arabia may not have been taking a daily dose of pyridostigmine bromide—the anti-nerve agent pill—they may have been loading up on a bug spray. Army support troops used a 70 percent DEET and lindane powder in 1991, which is no longer used by the military. Today’s formulas are 30 percent DEET.

And, anyone who served will remember washing his or her laundry by hand in a plastic tub. Some soldiers (and it was specific to soldiers) used the insecticide permethrin to treat their clothing as they washed. But the chemical was designed to last through six months’ worth of washings. Some soldiers used it every time they did laundry.

All of those chemicals—nerve agents, anti-nerve-agent pills, insecticide and repellent—include AChL inhibitors, and used in conjunction with each other, they appear to be the main culprit in Gulf War illness, Steele says.

Early research on rats found that the animals exhibited symptoms when exposed to pyridostigmine bromide and nerve agent that were similar to Gulf War illness, but VA did not include those animal studies in its database.

And research research has found that the brains of veterans with Gulf War illness look different, and that difference might be used to diagnose vets with the disease, but those researchers say they have not been contacted by VA. James Baraniuk, a professor of medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center, used fMRI machines to see anomalies in the bundle of nerve fibers that interpret pain signals in sick Gulf War vets. Those fibers had deteriorated.

Baraniuk believes the differences in symptoms may be differences in the onset of the same disease.

Another Georgetown study found two areas of atrophy in ill Gulf War veterans’ brains, both linked to exercise. This is key because so many Gulf War vets complain of fatigue. Some of the vets, when asked to stand up after lying down, experienced extreme blood pressure increases, while another group of ill Gulf War vets experienced increases in pain levels.

A second test to check short-term memory found that the sick vets’ brains used circuitous routes to find answers, a sign that the normal path is dysfunctional. It may show degeneration of the nervous system, Baraniuk said.

As frustrating as it can to be hear such a diagnosis, many veterans say they’re glad to finally know there is something wrong—that the disease is absolutely not psychosomatic, or all in their heads. And, as researchers work to answer questions about causes and effects, they’re gaining information about treatment.

Baraniuk recommends cognitive behavioral therapy because, if veterans don’t come to terms with the disease, they can face depression. He also recommends triptan drugs to help with migraines, which, he says, are a very real problem for these veterans

And, another recent study shows Coenzyme Q10, a supplement available at the drug store, helps veterans fight symptoms. Beatrice Golomb, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, found that 80 percent of ill Gulf War veterans who took the supplement experienced improved physical function. She hopes to conduct more research using “mitochondrial cocktails” to help vets feel better.

Gulf War veterans are also eligible for benefits for Gulf War illness.

Email Kelly Kennedy at kkennedy@vetlawyers.com.

Bergmann & Moore, LLC, is a national law firm dedicated to serving the needs of veterans in compensation claims before and against the Department of Veterans Affairs. The firm’s partners are former VA attorneys who are very familiar with the VA system. Bergmann & Moore handles all kinds of cases, but has a concentration in claims involving PTSD, military sexual trauma Gulf War illness, and complex medical issues, such as brain cancer or degenerative issues, veterans exposed to Agent Orange often face.


0 Response

  1. Still denying any problem with depleted uranium? What about the birth defects in Iraq? Especially bad in Fallujah. Some of our soldiers who previously had normal children and then were exposed to this stuff had deformed children after they came back. No relationship? BS The Pentagon is in denial to save money.

  2. Hi Bill — I wasn’t at all saying there aren’t problems with DU. I was saying Gulf War illness–that specific set of symptoms–doesn’t seem to be connected to DU. Thanks for the comment! Kelly

  3. BR

    Great article as a DS vet it seems some bizzare stigma has been stuck to us DS vets. On the VA medical side it has been my experience that the mere mention that you are a DS vet is a red flag. Benefits side yes great 38cfr 3.317 if only the Regional Offices would adjudicate claims using the regulation designed for DS vets. Although this article is very encouraging, I wonder if the VAMC and VBA are ready to accept it.

  4. Dan

    I went to VA back in 94′ and reported many of the systems related to GWI/CMI and found the experience to be quite belittling.

    Left it alone until 2001 or so when symptoms started getting worse and I went back. That time around they found an injury in my neck and I started getting decent care but still felt like they believed I was malingering in regards to GWI.

    Symptoms are still getting worse especially the fatigue and a chronic sinus infection/condition. Felt like I was having a heart attack last week and I went to the emergency room. Was treated very well and luckily it wasn’t a heart attack. I felt like they were actually considering GWI as a possible cause. Better late than never I guess…

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