Although the fighting in the Persian Gulf War ended in 1991, five years later the war is still not over. It drags on in the thousands of Gulf War veterans who believe they have something called Gulf War Syndrome. Do they? And if they do, is it one disease, a series of related diseases, or a collection of various unrelated ailments?
If, in fact, Desert War Syndrome is real, there are many serious questions that need to be addressed. For example, what caused it? Could it be stress? Some medical authorities seem to think so. According to Ronald R. Blank, DD, the two-star commanding general at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., “there were several months of stress in isolated and austere conditions” with “unprecedented exposure to a variety of conditions. This was no four-day war.”
This possibility of stress as a cause for many of the symptoms is seconded by Gareth M. Green, MD, professor of environmental health at Harvard School of Public Health., who believes that stress “created perhaps a unique situation that could affect the way illness appears,” and who goes on to cite various immune, endocrine, neurological, and psychiatric effects of stress that can “complicate other medical diseases.”
There has been no dearth of creative theories among medical specialist to explain the possible causes of this possible disease. Typical of such theories, both to the anonymity of the author and the method of publication, is the recent suggestion by an unnamed immunologist on the Internet of the role vaccine adjuvants played in the illness:
“An immunologist, with experience in the field of epidemiology, toxicology, immunopathology and general pathology, who is currently working in the area or rheumatology and silicone-gel breast implants, presented the theory of ‘human adjuvant disease’ and its possible link to Persian Gulf War Veterans’ illnesses.
Whether caused by stress, by vaccine adjuvants, or by specific physical agents, still thousands of American veterans are suffering from a variety of symptoms. What can cure it? Is the government that sent the troops into the theater of operation responsible? If it is, can and should that responsibility be translated into money, and, if so, how much?
I need to raise these questions with my students and guide them in a discussion of the following three general questions:
1. Who benefited from the war? (In other words, why did we get into it in the first place?)
2. Was it worth it? (In other words, how much did it
cost? Can we as a society put a monetary figure of the suffering of thousands of our citizens?
3. Was it wrong? (Is there such a thing as a “good war”? Was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, for example, substantially different from our own land grab in the Mexican-American War?)
If, in some ways the Persian Gulf War continues in the form of the Gulf War Syndrome, we need then, as a class and as a nation, to look briefly at the history of the situation. We know that the troops in the Desert Shield/Storm operation were exposed to several potentially harmful environmental hazards in the Persian Gulf, the most spectacular of which was no doubt the smoke from 605 oil well fires started by the retreating Iraqi army. In addition to smoke, United State troops were exposed to low levels of several pesticides. Furthermore, numerous petrochemical plants are located on the Northeastern coast of Saudi Arabia where many of our troops entered the theater of operation. Most combat troops passed through these port areas rapidly, but large numbers of support personnel were permanently stationed on the coast, a large percentage of whom were reservists. Can it be possible that exposure to various chemicals in these areas could explain a higher risk of reported illnesses among reservists compared to active duty personnel? On the other hand, there have been no accounts of increased health problems among local workers or inhabitants of the cities around these petrochemical plants.
Several other factors could explain why it’s been the reservists who have so often been the ones identified with unexplained illnesses: Perhaps during a period of military downsizing, where so many active duty personnel are concerned about their careers, there was a bias in the reporting of cases. Another reason could be that reservists tended to be older and possibly less physically resilient compared to active duty troops. And, finally, the stress theory again: Reserve personnel many have suffered increased stress because they had to leave civilian jobs and experienced greater disruption of their personal lives.
Another unique environmental hazard of the Persian Gulf War was exposure to depleted uranium (DU) munitions which are used for their enhanced armor penetrating ability. DU is a heavy metal which is less radioactive than natural uranium and evidently poses very little health hazard when external to the body. However, the impact of DU on armored targets or the presence of DU munitions in fires can result in increased exposure.
Finally, some troops may have been exposed to a number of other potential environmental hazards, including microwaves; chemical-agent-resistant-coating (CARC paint) fumes containing isocyanate; various petroleum products like JP4 fuel used in tent heaters and on the ground to keep the sand from blowing; decontamination solution, which contains propylene glycol, monomethyl ether, and ethylene glycol; and airborne allergens irritants.