Latest Iraq Vets Don't Have 'Gulf War Syndrome'

U.S. military personnel returning from Iraq don't seem to be reporting the kind of unexplained illnesses that were common after the 1991 Gulf War — leading some scientists to theorize soldiers in that first war were exposed to something unique.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Many troops returning from the first Gulf War complained of a mysterious illness. That war started fifteen years ago this week. In our second report marking the anniversary, NPR's Joseph Shapiro examines whether the men and women fighting the current war in Iraq are experiencing the same kinds of health problem.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO reporting:

Gulf War illnesses, that's the name used to describe a group of symptoms. It includes muscles and joints that ache, chronic fatigue, mood changes, and trouble concentrating or remembering. About one out of every four veterans came home from the Gulf War complaining of some of those problems. Recent studies by the Department of Veterans Affairs compared soldiers sent to the Gulf in 1991 and 1992, to those who weren't deployed. The ones who went are still today twice as likely to have the problems lumped together as Gulf War illnesses.

Mr. JAMES BINNS (Chairman, Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses): That's a staggering rate of illness.

SHAPIRO: James Binns is a Vietnam Veteran, a businessman in Arizona, and a chairman of a committee of doctors, scientists, and veterans that was set up by the VA to give advice on Gulf War illnesses.

The war this time is longer with repeat deployments, more direct combat, and more casualties. Even so, Binns says troops aren't reporting the illnesses so common in the first Gulf War.

Mr. BINNS: The major problems in the current war are first, serious wounds, the head injuries, wounds requiring amputation. And secondly, the battlefield stress. We're not seeing the same chronic multi-symptom illnesses that we saw from the first Gulf War.

SHAPIRO: But a top Pentagon doctor says there's another reason health problems look different this time. Michael Kilpatrick is in charge of protecting the health of troops that go to Iraq and Afghanistan. Kilpatrick says troops still come home with unexplained illnesses at about the same rate as in the first Gulf War. He says what's different today is that military and VA doctors have learned a lesson. They're taking health complaints more seriously. After the first war, doctors for years dismissed concerns about Gulf War illnesses.

Dr. MICHAEL KILPATRICK (Deputy Director of Deployment Health, Pentagon): What we had 15 years ago was a person saying, I've got pain in my elbow. And the doctor looking and saying, it's not swollen, it's not red, I can move it, and telling the person, I can't find anything wrong with you. Today, we understand, let's continue to work with this patient, let's not tell him, you know, you're persona non grata in the clinic.

SHAPIRO: That matters because Kilpatrick and other doctors believe that even if it's hard to tie a health problem to an exact cause, early treatment of the symptoms can minimize a problem, or even make it go away.

Dr. KILPATRICK: When you feel you can't get care and treatment, then obviously, symptoms will start to become, you'll focus on them, and they can become very severe to the point of being very debilitating.

SHAPIRO: Kilpatrick says, this time troops come home and get treated. He notes that Congress has made it easier for combat veterans to get access to the VA. Still, some men and women coming back from Iraq complain that it's too hard to get the care they need. James Binns says there's another big difference for troops fighting the current war.

Mr. BINNS: This war, although it's been fought in the same geographic neighborhood with the same conditions, has not had the same level of toxic exposures.

SHAPIRO: That's important, because veterans groups believe the illnesses common to the first Gulf War were caused by exposure to chemicals, vaccines, and other toxins on the battlefield. James Binns.

Mr. BINNS: The military did learn from the first Gulf War to exercise greater caution in use of pesticides. Certainly,we were fortunate that Saddam Hussein did not turn out to have chemical agents. And the troops, because the chemical agent alarms were not going off, were not taking some of the pills that they took last time, which may have contributed to this problem. So, in general, there were not the same environmental exposures that were present in the last war.

SHAPIRO: And that's one thing the veterans' groups and Pentagon doctors agree on. In this war, environmental teams are assigned to combat units to check the battlefield for pesticides and other toxic materials. Veterans' groups and Dr. Kilpatrick's office both push for that.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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