GULF WAR MYSTERY
MAY 24, 1996
It's been five years since the War in the Persian Gulf and researchers are still trying to determine the cause of illnesses afflicting those veterans, the so-called Gulf War Syndrome. Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Broadcasting has this update.
LEE HOCHBERG: Transportation planner Bill Hobbs of suburban Portland says plotting out traffic patterns on his computer used to be a snap. That was before he was called away with his Marine reserve unit to the Gulf War.
BILL HOBBS, Gulf War Veteran: I don't have the concentration that I did before because a lot of this, you know, I sit here and I stare at something, and I get lost after a while. My mind wanders, where before I could come in and sit down for eight hours and just pound it out.
LEE HOCHBERG: Hobbs complains of memory loss, fatigue, blurred vision, and numbness in his arm, symptoms that appeared after only one month of Gulf War duty near the Saudi Kuwait border.
BILL HOBBS: My body isn't what it was before I went, and it's been that way since I got there. I feel like I'm in the prime of my life, and when I'm in the prime, why should I be having problems of remembering how to do things. There's people here that I've worked with for seven years, and I walk up to 'em in the hallway and I can't remember their names.
LEE HOCHBERG: At least 30,000 Gulf War vets like Hobbs have been plagued by mysterious symptoms which also include joint pain, rashes, sleep, and stomach disorders. Together, they've been dubbed the Gulf War Syndrome, but the Pentagon says there's no such thing. Its one-year study of more than 10,000 vets found no single malady that's causing the vets' complaints.
ROBERT ROSWELL, Gulf Veterans Board: I don't think there is a single Gulf War illness, rather just the opposite, that while there were, in fact, and are large numbers of Persian Gulf veterans who are ill today, that their illnesses are due to a wide variety of medical problems.
LEE HOCHBERG: The head of the three agency government panel studying Gulf War ailments, Robert Roswell, says 37 percent of the vets' ailments are psychiatric, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, 41 percent have been given an ill-defined diagnosis like fatigue. Another 17 percent are musculoskeletal ailments. These numbers are typical, Roswell says, in a military population this size and age group.
ROBERT ROSWELL: The majority, in fact, the overwhelming majority of problems they suffer, are the types of problems one would expect to see in the military population for which diagnosis and treatment is now available.
SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER, (D) West Virginia: (May 16) No such thing as a Persian Gulf War illness, no single cause of any illness, no problem. The Department of Defense was comfortable in saying no problem. Take an aspirin, go home, and get some rest.
LEE HOCHBERG: Veterans groups and some political leaders are enraged by the Pentagon's conclusion. At a briefing this month, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chided Pentagon officials for being callous and evasive about possible causes of Gulf War ailments.
SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER: One of the incredibly frustrating things about the Persian Gulf War health problems has been the attitude of some DOD officials, Department of Defense officials, who have been defensive, have been rejecting, and I would say frankly mostly unsympathetic. That is my experience.
LEE HOCHBERG: Rockefeller says the real story on Gulf War illness comes from a survey conducted last summer by the Centers for Disease Control on almost 4,000 members of Air National Guard units. It found the prevalence of 13 chronic symptoms was significantly greater among persons deployed to the Persian Gulf War than among those not deployed, five times as many deployed groups suffered skin rashes and diarrhea, four times as many suffered memory loss, and more than twice as many suffered joint pain.
DR. DENNIS BOURDETTE, VA Neurologist: I think it is premature to make--to close the case and, and make the case that this is all just, uh, some variant on post-traumatic stress disorder and end of discussion, let's stop looking for anything else. In my opinion, it's premature to do that.
LEE HOCHBERG: Veterans Administration researchers may be turning up some other causes of Gulf War ailments. The agency is spending $5 million a year on 35 studies. Portland neurologist, Dr. Dennis Bourdette, is seeking possible chemical exposures.
VETERAN: A lot of times when the fatigue sets on, especially during the summer, when it's warm, up like eighty-five, ninety degrees, I mean, I'm just wiped out.
DOCTOR: Okay. Do your teeth chatter with chills nor not?
LEE HOCHBERG: Bourdette believes fatigued vets may be suffering the effects of ingesting parito stigmine bromide pills. Troops took the pills as an antidote to possible nerve gas attacks. Under the microscope, the chemical appears to impede communication between nerves and muscles, possibly a cause of lethargy.
DR. DENNIS BOURDETTE: Well, it's very clear that the--in low doses, the parito stigmine bromide in culture will stop muscles from twitching normally in response to nerve impulses, and these are in rather low doses. They might experience that as weakness or fatiguability.
LEE HOCHBERG: The pill was tested before being used on troops but Bourdette says its side effect may have been exaggerated in troops dehydrated under the hot desert sun. Another study out of Duke University's Medical Center suggests even if the parito stigmine bromide was harmless on its own, it became toxic when mixed with pesticides the troops used to fend off desert insects. Laboratory chickens who ingested a mixture of parito stigmine bromide and the two pesticides showed the same neurological problems some veterans report. Study director Dr. Mohamed Abou-Donia.
DR. MOHAMED ABOU-DONIA, Pharmacologist: When we exposed the animals to mixtures of these chemicals in a combination produced a more severe effect. They kind of overwhelm the body, and we have more of the chemical that goes through the brain and causes damage to the central nervous system.
SEN. ALAN SIMPSON, Chairman, Veterans Affairs Committee: (May 16) And are the anatomies of humans and chickens so similar that you can apply your findings to, to Gulf War veterans? How can you extrapolate your findings in such a way--
LEE HOCHBERG: At the recent Senate briefing, congressional critics were skeptical. Though scientists say chickens' susceptibility to neuro toxic chemicals closely resembles that of humans, the government's Roswell calls the Duke study theoretical and hypothetical.
ROBERT ROSWELL: It's not a human study, and so further work is necessary to really evaluate its application in a military population.
LEE HOCHBERG: The government says it wouldn't do things much differently if it had it to do again.
ROBERT ROSWELL: There was good scientific data that suggested that parito stigmine bromide was safe, was safe at the doses employed, and, in fact, did provide a protective action against exposure to a class of chemical agents known as nerve agents, which are extremely lethal. And so I believe the decision was a wise one.
LEE HOCHBERG: Investigators also are considering possible impacts of exposure to Iraqi chemicals. The army's top doctors said this month there clearly is some evidence of low-level exposure and at a symposium in Portland, the director of a Senate investigation into U.S. policy in Iraq said there is tremendous evidence that allied troops were exposed to chemical fallout from bombed Iraqi factories.
JAMES TUITE, Former Senate Investigator: We also know that when we were bombing the chemical weapons factories, that the weather patterns were moving down continuously over on our troops. In fact, we've taken satellite images and laid them over the terrain to show that the way the weather was moving and the way the high altitude fallout was going coincided with the factories being bombed and the alarms sounding.
BILL HOBBS: The American alarms in my sector went off three, four, five times a day for a month, staring with the air war. I mean, every time you turned around, the alarms went off.
LEE HOCHBERG: Investigator Tuite says his research shows some U.S. commanders failed to adequately protect their troops from the fallout.
JAMES TUITE: We not only didn't put ourselves in chemical gear but we told them that if the alarms were bothering them to take the batteries out. We told them to disregard the alarms. We did all of this repeatedly.
ROBERT ROSWELL: Those of us who have been evaluating the health consequences of service in the Persian Gulf have always had an open door to the possibility that chemical agent exposure could have been a contributing factor to at least some of the illness we've seen.
LEE HOCHBERG: The government acknowledges its liability for Gulf War ailments could grow. The VA has approved compensation claims for more than 22,000 veterans and 400 veterans like Hobbs with unexplained illnesses. Hobbs has joined 78 others in a billion dollar lawsuit against the international suppliers of Iraqi chemical and biological warfare materials, but he says what he really wants is to make sure the cause of his ailments isn't swept under the rug.
BILL HOBBS: You've got the atomic veterans, and they were only recognized a few years ago, and this is from 40 years ago. Agent Orange, it took 'em 20 years. Well, it's only been five years since the Gulf. They're trying to end it, cut the purse strings off and let's quit while we're ahead.
LEE HOCHBERG: As the research continues, he says, he'll keep going, a little slower than before, waiting to see if his mysterious symptoms disappear.