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Gulf War Syndrome Is Physical, 
Not Mental, Says Official Study  


By Mark Anderson

While depleted uranium, or DU, is acknowledged as one of about 12 “ingredients” in the “toxic soup” that made veterans sick in the first gulf war nearly 18 years ago, two different ingredients are considered by researchers to be the primary causes of Gulf War Illness (GWI). This is a major, if debatable, conclusion included in a highly anticipated report released by the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses.

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The report, released Nov. 17 in Washington, instead identifies “PB” pills and various insecticides as the main culprits behind GWI. Pyridostigmine bromide, or PB, pills were ingested by soldiers on a daily basis, as required, to guard against chemical weapons attacks. The insecticides were used against fleas, mosquitoes and other pests in the unforgiving desert environment, where enormous sandstorms transporting ultra-fine sand also transport chemical weapon and pesticide residues, DU fallout and other toxins over vast distances.  Notably, PB pills are still available but not widely used in the current deployments, and many of the insecticides have been changed, according to committee member Dr. Lea Steele.

A number of current and retired soldiers still strongly believe that DU, a radiological weapons component, caused major health problems in the first gulf war, and that it still does so, due to its constant use (with minimal handling and clean-up regulations applied) in all major battle theaters over the last couple of decades. DU’s known dangers lie in its radioactive fallout when it is aerosolized or fragmented upon detonation. But committee members said during repeated questioning by AFP that DU was not scientifically established in the report as a major GWI cause.

Committee members acknowledged that toxins from the first gulf war are still present in the same stomping grounds where American troops are now fighting. DU munitions continue to be exploded in those areas.  So while DU’s link to GWI is seen as minimal, the report does take a major step forward by officially demystifying GWI, which was long shrugged off as gulf war “syndrome.” GWI has finally been officially defined by the government as a “constellation” of physical symptoms caused by a specific list of exposures. It’s no longer regarded as a hodgepodge of mysterious maladies resulting from mere stress and traumatic wartime experiences.  GWI therefore is never again to be officially equated with post traumatic stress disorder or any other purely psychosomatic factor, but is only caused by exposure to various agents.

Veterans complaining of various GWI symptoms often have been bounced over to VA “psych wards” to be given antidepressants that usually don’t help, but now the report’s scientific findings are supposed to finally set the stage for proper and punctual treatment, although committee members were not certain if the findings will lead to substantive changes in medical treatments for veterans in the near future.

The report lists the known toxic substances, or “ingredients,” that soldiers were subjected to in the first gulf war. Then, in an effort to show cause-effect relationships, it identifies the variety of symptoms collectively defined as GWI. The “soup” that soldiers were exposed to was comprised of: PB pills, pesticides, chemical weapons, oil well fires, anthrax vaccine, tent heater exhaust, sand/particulates, DU, solvents, fuel exposures and chemical agent resistant paint.

American Free Press—having covered the committee’s preliminary proceedings in Dallas in July 2007—covered this latest meeting at Department of Veteran Affairs headquarters to keep tabs on the ongoing research into GWI’s causes and treatments. This latest report’s release was treated as a major milestone, although general media attendance was sparse.  In an overhead presentation at the release, DU’s demotion was clearly evident; it was listed along with anthrax vaccine, fuel and solvents under the heading:

“Unlikely to have caused GWI for the majority of affected veterans.”

Symptoms/diseases collectively defined as GWI include amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).  “Studies have also indicated that gulf war veterans developed [ALS] at twice the rate of non-deployed era veterans, and that the veterans downwind from the Khamisiyah munitions demolitions have died from brain cancer at twice the rate of other gulf war veterans,” the report notes. Other GWI signs include various combinations of ongoing diarrhea, chronic fatigue and insomnia, depressed immune function, neurological and gastrointestinal problems, widespread pain, fibromyalgia, musculoskeletal and skin problems, cardiac and pulmonary symptoms, and a number of other maladies.  These symptoms, in varying degrees and combinations, still are being suffered by between 175,000 and 210,000 gulf war veterans, according to figures cited by committee member Anthony Hardie, also a gulf war veteran and a leading spokesman for Veterans of Modern Warfare. He lauded fellow committee members for finally putting more emphasis on treatment, instead of getting bogged down in research.

Summarizing the report, committee member Dr.  Steele told former gulf war (Air Force) nurse Denise Nichols, who closely follows the committee’s meetings, that DU studies are still part of the research process—a process that does not end with the release of the report.  But Sgt. Alishia Mason, 25, told AFP that while the most outspoken committee members apparently assume that far fewer soldiers in the current conflicts experience multi-symptom health problems, she experienced numerous symptoms after driving an Army gun truck in Iraq just a few years ago. She joined the armed forces on Sept. 9, 2001 and served until October of 2005.  “We drove 1.5 million miles in 13 months—22-hour days,” she said, while carrying her medical file and showing that she had had a number of tests. Now an Army reservist, she experiences gastro-intestinal problems, multi-chemical sensitivity, night sweats and insomnia, and said that her lungs feel like they have glass in them, along with small bald spots, and an adverse reaction to foods that used to be no problem.  She does not know exactly what causes all this. She only learned about DU two years after her active duty ended. She suspects DU played a role, based on the battle action she experienced. Moreover, she was in the vicinity of a notorious toxic waste fire in Balad, Iraq and spent considerable time in that area. “I think they should have warned us,” she added, referring to the apparent lack of containment or clean-up actions regarding DU munitions. Many medical tests showed nothing, but an MRI revealed that the inside of her esophagus “looked metallic, like the inside of a weapon’s barrel,” she said, while alleging that the full MRI results are being withheld from her.

James Bunker, president of the National Gulf War Research Center, acknowledged that the report does not show a significant DU link with GWI. He thinks there is an institutional “resistance” to overcome so more DU research can be properly carried out. His group wants the secretary of veterans affairs to set clear policy directives to reflect the committee’s findings. The VA must update its clinician guides and training manuals on GWI and require everyone who treats or performs benefits ratings for gulf war veterans to take this training module; all references to GWI as “psychological” must be eliminated from VA training material; and long waiting times for sick veterans must be ended, with funds set aside for veterans to travel to take part in GWI studies.

The report does take the government to task for wasteful research, Bunker noted, pointing out that Defense Department 2006 “research” on GWI was a major misfire. “Ninety-three percent of it had nothing to do with GWI,” Bunker told AFP. He also agrees with Ms.  Nichols, Hardie and others that research funding should be maintained and increased.

The Research Advisory Committee’s 2009 meetings, open to the public, are set for Feb. 23-24 in Dallas; June 29-30 in Boston; and Nov. 2-3 in Washington. The stated purpose of the committee is “to provide advice and make recommendations to the secretary of Veterans Affairs on proposed research studies, research plans and research strategies relating to the health consequences of military service in the Southwest Asia theater of operations during the gulf war,” an official announcement said.

Mark Anderson is corresponding editor for American Free Press.


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