Operation Illness — Gulf War Syndrome

By Michael Fumento

Priorities Magazine, 1994
Copyright 1994 Priorities

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Is it "Saddam’s Revenge" or merely chemophobia in a fascinating new guise?

More than two years after end of the Gulf War, newspapers and airwaves are filled with stories about veterans of Desert Storm falling ill with a variety of perplexing illnesses. No fewer than 11 television programs such as Nightline have focus on it. This, in turn, has prompted congressional leaders to hold several hearings in which they blasted military authorities.

"The Pentagon just doesn’t get it," said Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman Lane Evans (D-IL) at the hearing he sponsored. "Thousands of veterans are suffering without knowing what ails them." But some people think that it’s Evans, his fellow congressmen and the media who just don’t get it.

Dr. Barry Rumack, a toxicology expert who is a clinical professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and director emeritus of the Rocky Mountain Poison Center in Denver, said: "I wouldn’t call this a syndrome at all, because to me a syndrome is a disease, and I’ve seen no evidence that." Rumack, who is also a retired major in the Army Reserve, added: "There is no relationship between events purported to have occurred there, actual or potential, and these illnesses."

The so-called Gulf War Syndrome comprises a number of ailments that have been diagnosed in some of the 657,000 men and women assigned to th Gulf region in 1990 and 1991. Among the symptoms attributed to the syndrome are aching muscles, irritability, fatigue, thick saliva, weight loss, weight gain, hair loss, sore gums, diarrhea, nausea, swelling, memory loss, labored breathing and headaches.

Much of the attention has focused on a single unit, the reserve 24th Naval Construction Battalion stationed at Columbus, GA, and the physician in charge of investigating their complaints, Charles Jackson, M.D., of the Tuskegee VA Medical Center in Huntsville, AL. Jackson recalls it, "One of the great mysteries of the century. And I don’t exaggerate."

Theories as to the specific cause or causes of the illness have ranged from use of depleted uranium in American shells to fumes from burning oil fires to multiple chemical sensitivity, but by far most of the attention has focused on the most exotic possibility — Iraqi use of chemical agents. USA Today went so far as to headline an article, "Trail of Symptoms Suggests Chem-arms."

Yet toxicology experts say these symptoms suggest just the opposite. Neither Americans nor their allies reported suffering from chemical weapons at the time of the conflict, although some of Jackson’s patients are now saying that in retrospect they suffered a burning sensation in their lungs after a Scud missile attack. Jackson admitted as much, yet told USA Today, "Suppose they’d developed that was insidious so they didn’t need to incapacitate in the field," he told the newspaper, "something that you would get when you got home."

Although Jackson is a military physician and not a military strategist, one needn’t have graduated from West Point to realize that a weapon that doesn’t work until the war is already over isn’t particularly helpful.

The Defense Department has also said that no Allied soldiers were exposed to chemical weapons during the war.

According to Rep. Evans, "The commonality of experiences that [Gulf War veterans] have faced seem to be fairly convincing that they are suffering serious problems..." Actually, the symptoms seem to have little in common, except that everybody claiming to suffer them was in the Gulf. Well, almost everybody. In the latest twist, some veterans are now even blaming their wives’ ills, such as joint pain, on the syndrome.

"We’ve looked very carefully for common exposures," said Virginia Stephanakis of the Army Surgeon General’s office, "and we can’t find [similarities] of any sort. The soldiers were in different places in Saudi [Arabia] at different times and doing different jobs."

An early Army study of 79 Indiana reservists who served in the Gulf and complained of a variety of symptoms found "no objective evidence for an outbreak of disease." It said: "Problems and symptoms like those found here would be expected to occur throughout the Reserve forces which deployed;"

The report said that to the extent there were any abnormalities, they appeared to be related to the stress of being ripped quickly out of a civilian life and being sent to a war zone, then a few months later being thrust right back into civilian life. "The only common denominator," of Gulf War Syndrome said Stephanakis, "is the complaints are overwhelmingly in Reserve and (National) Guard troops."

A wider, on-going Army study comparing 5,300 Gulf War veterans with 5,300 veterans who served elsewhere during the same period has found so far, on the whole, there has been no difference in illnesses. The only exceptions found were that twice as many Gulf veterans showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and about 15 percent showed signs of alcohol dependence.

The report on the 79 reservists found that many of symptoms seemed to arise in resonse to reports of other people being sick. "When we have the media reports of a particular symptom that hasn’t been reported before, " said Stephanakis, "suddenly we’ll get plenty of those."

Phantom epidemics in which massive numbers of people fall ill upon hearing of other people’s sickness are well documented. Earlier this year more than 2,000 children in and around Cairo, Egypt suddenly fell ill in an epidemic of fainting which some blamed on chemical and biological agents. But reserachers from the government and the World Health Organization found no poisons of any sort associated with victims and declared the problem was psychological rather than physiological.

Such episodes seem to follow a general pattern. When people hear that a chemical or technology (such as power lines or cellular phones) could be making them sick, a couple happen. First, some individuals who are already sick assume that their illness was caused by that chemical or technology. Second, others begin to feel sick because they have been told they should be. Such behavior has been documented repeatedly in this country at such famous sites as New York’s Love Canal.

While he doesn’t believe that veterans are suffering from anything they were expposed to in the Gulf, Rumack says that this doesn’t mean they don’t deserve sympathy or help. Stress-related illnesses, said Rumack, are "a devastating problem with physical consequences; it’s just not anything chemical."

Some of the illnesses that have been related to the Gulf are clearly serious, even life-threatening, and not the result of stress.

One 29-year-old helicopter pilot testified before Congress that he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after he came back from the Gulf. But assuming this ailment to be related to anything in the Gulf, as he did, is a huge leap. "If you take any population [this large] and look at it for normal rates of disease, there will be a certain number who will develop brain tumors, leukemia, adult onset diabetes. You can expect to find any condition among 700,000 people," said Rumack. "You have to be able to demonstrate that it is different from [the] background [rate)."

While cancer is relatively rare at that age, it is hardly unheard of. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, over 1,000 men per year die of cancer between the ages of 25 and 29 in this country. Further, said Stephanakis, "Lymphoma has a [latency period] of many years, and it would be almost impossible for [these cancers and any Gulf War exposure] to be related. If they’re looking for a specific cause of these lymphomas, they should be looking for something they were exposed to 10 or 15 years ago."

In one case, Stephanakis said a soldier who ultimately died of lymphoma had just arrived in Saudi Arabia when he was diagnosed. "He had rectal bleeding six days after arriving, and the family blamed it on the Gulf, " she said incredulously.

Some veterans and one advocacy group that opposed the Gulf War deployment, the Military Family Support Network of Fort Bragg, NC, have also attributed both miscarriages and birth defects to exposures in the Gulf. Stephanakis, however, said the miscarriage rate at the Army’s largest installations both before and after the war, "was the same — about eight percent of all pregnancies. That’s half the national average" she said.

Speaking of the syndrome as a whole, Stephanakis said, "I think we’re going to find that each case is unique" and unrelated to any given cause. But, she added, "It’s complicated by politics," just as the Agent Orange controversy was.

Indeed, the similarities between the Agent Orange controversy and Gulf War Syndrome are striking: both concern a fear of low-level exposure to chemicals used in war; both involve the assumption that any ills suffered after the alleged exposure must be caused by that exposure; the alleged victimns are treated as having expertise while the counsel of good scientists is ignored; and finally, in both, good science and the psychological health of our brave veterans have been subjugated to politics and high ratings.

Read Michael Fumento’s additional writing on Gulf War Syndrome and on the military.