Gulf War Veterans' Maladies Still Confound Doctors

On this day 15 years ago, the first Gulf War began. Many troops came home complaining of fatigue, muscle pains and memory problems. Government scientists say no other group of soldiers ever had its health so thoroughly studied. Still, those Gulf War illnesses remain a mystery.

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Fifteen years ago today, the first Gulf War began. It was a short war, but many troops came home complaining of fatigue, muscle pains and memory problems. Government scientists say no other group of soldiers ever had its health so thoroughly studied. Still, those Gulf War illnesses remain a mystery. NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO reporting:

Right away many returning from the Persian Gulf complained about health problems. Dr. Melvin Blanchard is at the St. Louis Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Dr. MELVIN BLANCHARD (St. Louis Veterans Affairs Medical Center): There was a report of a mystery illness in Pennsylvania among the Air National Guard there.

SHAPIRO: Scientists from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention went to Pennsylvania to investigate.

Dr. BLANCHARD: And they identified a symptom cluster which is named chronic multisymptom illness.

SHAPIRO: Chronic multisymptom illness was the name given to the problems of veterans who complained of fatigue, muscle and joint aches, mood problems or difficulty thinking and concentrating. The government scientists compared troops who'd been in the Gulf to those who hadn't. Blanchard says the difference was striking.

Dr. BLANCHARD: The CDC identified 45 percent of the deployed veterans at that time with chronic multisymptom illness, which is shortened CMI, and 15 percent among the non-deployed veterans.

SHAPIRO: The scientists could not explain why troops who went to the Gulf were nearly three times more likely to have CMI. Recently, Blanchard looked to see if those problems continued 10 years later. He and other VA researchers brought 2,000 soldiers into clinics and put them under a day and a half of rigorous testing. Some veterans had stopped having problems, but even a decade later, Gulf War veterans are twice as likely to be dealing with those chronic illnesses and far more likely, four and a half times more, to have the most severe CMI. Blanchard published those finding this month in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Dr. BLANCHARD: Oh, veterans are suffering. They're complaining of a variety of symptoms that we have no explanation for. And many individuals feel that it's in the veteran's head, but we think that their complaints are real.

SHAPIRO: Although government scientists can show the problems exist, there's one thing they've never been able to do. No study has ever proven what caused the Gulf War illnesses. One recent study looked at some battlefield toxins. In March of 1991, soldiers blew up stockpiles of Iraqi weapons including some with the nerve agent sarin. Dr. Michael Kilpatrick runs the Pentagon's Office for Force Health Protection.

Dr. MICHAEL KILPATRICK (Office for Force Health Protection): What about the exposures that we know happened to people at Komasa, where our troops blew up chemical agents and rockets unknowingly? And we had about a hundred thousand people who were exposed to very low levels of chemical warfare agent.

SHAPIRO: Kilpatrick asked scientists from the independent Institute of Medicine to study veterans who'd been exposed to traces of the chemical. The report was published last summer. Overall health was about the same for those exposed and those who weren't. Death rates were the same; cancer rates were the same.

Dr. KILPATRICK: They did find one difference...

SHAPIRO: Pentagon Dr. Michael Kilpatrick.

Dr. KILPATRICK: ...and that was death due to brain cancer, and it was twice as high in the group under the hazard areas than not in the hazard area.

SHAPIRO: But there were just 25 deaths, and that's too few to establish cause and effect.

Another study showed Gulf War veterans are more likely to get Lou Gehrig's disease, but no study has linked those mysterious symptoms of CMI with battlefield exposures. So many researchers argue that wartime stress was a likely explanation. Many veterans objected because they thought it discounted their problems. Dr. Joel Kupersmith runs research programs for the Department of Veterans Affairs. He says the agency has stopped paying for research that looks at stress as a main cause.

Dr. JOEL KUPERSMITH (Department of Veterans Affairs): It's a question of essentially listening to your patients. So we're listening. We're listening to people who are suffering, and we're trying to track down some of these leads.

SHAPIRO: But many Persian Gulf veterans feel that the VA and Pentagon took too long to listen, like Michael Woods of the advocacy group the National Gulf War Resource Center. He deals with rolling intense headaches.

Mr. MICHAEL WOODS (National Gulf War Resource Center): It'll start, you know, slightly mild, and then three or four days later, it'll finally escalate and peak to the point that you'd just as soon, you know, just chop your head off than continue to put up with that kind of pain.

SHAPIRO: Sometimes it ends with Woods blacking out. He gets those headaches only about once a month now thanks to medications, but he gets those drugs from his family doctor. He quit going to the VA because he felt doctors there didn't take his complaints seriously. Last month, Woods' young brother was deployed to Iraq.

Mr. WOODS: He joined the military because he wanted to serve his country just like I did, and I didn't want to discourage him or distort his opinion.

SHAPIRO: Woods says he hopes his own advocacy, and that of other Gulf War veterans, will help protect the health of his brother and other troops serving in this war. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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