BOB EDWARDS [BE]: Five years after the Persian Gulf War scientists and medical authorities still say there is inconclusive evidence supporting the existence of a disease afflicting tens of thousands of military personnel.
This is Morning Edition. I’m Bob Edwards. Fighting in the Persian Gulf War lasted only six weeks, but, for some, the consequences persist. Of the 700,000 American men and women who served in the Gulf, tens of thousands subsequently fell ill. Though it’s not surprising to have a certain number of illnesses among a population of that size, some veterans suspect something more is going on, that there is a disease caused by service in the Gulf. But, five years after the war scientists still can’t say whether Gulf Syndrome exists. N[ational] P[ublic] R[adio]’s Richard Harris reports.
RICHARD HARRIS [RH]: During the Gulf War Barry Kaplan was an Army captain responsible for keeping helicopters in fighting form. He says his duties took him across searing sand, through Shiite refugee camps, over Republican Guard strongholds and past the rolling smoke plumes from the oil well fires. But his tour of duty came to an abrupt halt when he suddenly got sick on May 8, 1991, two months after the shooting had ended.
BARRY KAPLAN [BK]: I was on an armed convoy taking materials from Safwan Iraq area down into Saudi Arabia when it really manifested itself in some really extreme bizarre pain, stomach pains. I made it into Kinghi Military City where I was shoveled into the ER.
RH: Kaplan says that doctors in Saudi Arabia pumped him full of antibiotics and sent him home to a base in Frankfurt, Germany, but Kaplan says he got worse, not better.
BK: I started to have excessive gastrointestinal problems. I was getting ringworm-like rashes all over my body, night sweats, profuse, profuse, almost malaria-like night sweats from my knee down.
RH: He says he had chest pains that sent him to the hospital. His gums bled and he lost vision in his left eye for five minutes. Last year doctors concluded Kaplan was 100 percent disabled, so he retired to Southington, Connecticut, after ten years in the Army.
Kaplan has become a symbol of Gulf Syndrome. He has visited the White House and testified before a presidential panel investigating illnesses among Gulf War vets, but Dr. Robert Roswell, executive director of the government Persian Gulf War Coordinating Board, says Gulf War Syndrome, as such, may not in fact exist.
ROBERT ROSWELL [RR]: There is no strong evidence suggesting a single unique Persian Gulf Syndrome. That’s not to say that Persian Gulf veterans are not ill. They, in fact, suffer from a wide variety of medical problems. But, so far to date, we have found nothing suggestive of a unique single cause or syndrome that would explain the illnesses experienced by Persian Gulf veterans.
RH: This point of view is supported by prominent health experts outside the military, including expert committees convened by the National Institutes of Health and the National Academy of Science. Nevertheless, the government has moved quickly to give these veterans the benefit of the doubt. Veterans don’t have to wait for government doctors to figure out what’s wrong with them before getting compensation. Roswell says they’re entitled to benefits if they fell ill within two years of serving in the Gulf War.
RR: New legislation was passed—in fact, landmark legislation—that would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide disability compensation to not only the usual and ordinary types of illnesses and injuries and disabilities associated with military service, and service during a combat situation, but also in response to the unexplained illnesses being reported by Persian Gulf veterans.
RH: Many people expected this legislation would open the door to what appeared to be thousands of veterans who are sick due to unknown exposures in the Gulf, but it hasn’t worked out that way. So far, of 7300 applications processed, only about 350 veterans have qualified to receive compensation for undiagnosed illnesses. Again, Robert Roswell.
RR: What we find is that many people who have filed for disability compensation either didn’t have the onset of their symptoms within the required two-year period, the illness wasn’t of sufficient degree to cause any disability, or the disability was the result of a diagnosed recognizable illness, and in each of those three cases it would then understandably not qualify for disability compensation under the new specific piece of legislation.
RH: Veterans’ groups say this experience shows the rules are still too strict, but others see the statistics as a sign that there actually aren’t all that many Gulf War veterans out there with unexplained disabilities. Barry Kaplan didn’t need the special legislation because he had so many ailments the V.A. had no trouble deciding that he was 100 percent disabled, but, when it came time for the Army to decide what made Kaplan sick, if not Gulf War Syndrome, Kaplan wasn’t all that happy with the answer.
BK: Even though I have diagnosis of chronic myocarditis, gastritis, esophegal dismotility and esophogitis, chemical hepatitis, along with Q-fever, and neurological issues that have never been fully investigated, they went with a psychriatic diagnosis versus lab results, and that has basically infuriated my wife and I.
RH: Officially, Kaplan has Somatoform Disorder. He’s not faking illness, but, according to this diagnosis, there is no physical condition that can fully account for his symptoms. In fact, the Army’s survey of 10,000 ill Gulf War veterans found 37 percent had a psychiatric diagnosis. But, to many veterans it’s hardly satisfying to explain many cases of Gulf War Syndrome as a psychological reaction to the battlefield, particularly when there are many questions as yet unanswered. The list of what is known isn’t all that long. Here again is Persian Gulf Coordinating executive Robert Roswell.
RR: We now know that the overall death rate in Persian Gulf War veterans in the five years that have elapsed since the cessation of hostilities is not increased above what we would expect to see in a military age population. We know, based on very large numbers of studies, that the overall rate of birth defects in children born to Persian Gulf veterans is not increased above what we would expect to see in this military age population. We know that while there are a very large number of individuals who have some type of medical problem, almost 10 percent of those who served in the Persian Gulf, have experienced some type of medical problem, that the overwhelming majority of these medical problems, these illnesses, are the usual and ordinary types of problems of medical illnesses that we would expect to see in this age population.
RH: What Rosewell still can’t say five years after the Gulf War is whether Persian Gulf veterans are more likely to have these illnesses than people of comparable age. Roswell can’t say whether there’s an increase of certain rare birth defects, even though the overall rate in active duty personnel isn’t up, and researchers haven’t been able to dismiss completely any of the theories about what could have caused excessive disease in the Gulf.
Those theories include reactions to unapproved drugs, delayed reaction to chemical or biological warfare agents, or smoke from the oil well fires. Those studies, and dozens more, are underway right now, but Matt Paglusi, at the American Legion, say the wait for answers is frustrating.
MATT PAGLUSI [MP]: If you’re a veteran who has a child with birth defects, whether or not your service in the Gulf was tied to these birth defects won’t be scientifically determined perhaps until 1999. In the meantime, you’ve got a child who’s severely disabled, who may not survive until 1999, and the only explanation you have is: ‘After service in the Gulf you had a child with a birth defect,’ and yet it’s taken the government several years to get going with these studies, and that’s shameful.
RH: Other organizations have more charitable things to say about the government’s ongoing research program. The National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine has mostly praise for the Army’s Gulf War program, and the medically retired Army officer Barry Kaplan says the government has clearly turned over a new leaf wince the days of Vietnam.
BK: I think that the Gulf War vets have been taken care of pretty well in timeliness of addressing the issues. Now the issues may be clouded, but things are moving in the right direction.
RH: And as long as they keep heading that way, scientists should have many more definitive answers in the next few years. This is Richard Harris in Washington.