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gulf war syndrome

(Watch for a major FRONTLINE update on Gulf War Syndrome that will be posted on this Web site in mid-January 1997)

The postwar ailments of Gulf War veterans have become known as 'Gulf War Syndrome' and millions of dollars of research and many health studies are focusing on whether it is a definable illness.

About 70,000 Gulf War veterans say their depression, anxiety, musculoskeletal disorders, fatigue, respiratory problems, memory loss and other symptoms are associated with Gulf War exposure to chemicals from burning oil wells, insecticides and, to poison or poisons linked to innoculations against biological warfare or to Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons.

Up until June 1996, the Defense Department consistently rejected the idea that these illnesses could be linked to exposure to Iraq's chemical or biological weapons. However, on June 21,1996 the Pentagon disclosed that U.S. troops may have been exposed to poison gas shortly after the Gulf War when an Iraqi weapons bunker in southern Iraq was blown up by soldiers from the U.S. Army (the 37th Engineering Battalion) in March 1991.

The Pentagon has announced it will be investigating whether the poison gas from this weapons depot could have drifted down on soldiers in a wider area. The bunker contained nerve and mustard gas munitions. Two valuable sources for background/information on Gulf War syndrome and the medical issues and studies are:

GulfLINK - Over 3700 recently declassified documents with relevance to Gulf War syndrome can be found on this Department of Defense site. This data base provides a research service for Gulf War veterans and researchers. It includes captured Iraqi information, intelligence reports, U.S. Army operational documents and post-Gulf War research by the U.S. Defense Department. Also collected here are fact sheets on Gulf War illnesses, and a bibliography of studies and specialized readings. More documents will be added by the time the data base is completed in 1996.

The National Gulf War Resources Center - A national organization supporting grassroots efforts to assist Gulf War veterans. This organization is skeptical of the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs' actions and statements relating to Gulf War illnesses. The Center offers a continually updated network of resources and support organizations for veterans. It includes material and scientific reports on veterans' illnesses and has links to other related material.

A summary of the Pentagon's official position (prior to the above June 1996 announcement concerning the Iraqi munitions bunker):

The U.S. Department of Defense officially maintains there is no mystery illness and that the majority of ill Gulf War veterans suffer from generally common problems that usually are easily diagnosed, and which occur among veterans at about the same rate as in the general population.

There is "no clinical evidence for a new or unique illness or syndrome among Persian Gulf veterans," the Defense Department said in an August 1995 report which examined 10,020 active-duty service people. However, there is division within the government. The Institute of Medicine, a not-for-profit research group affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences recently issued a report saying the Defense Department did not adequately explain its conclusion that the illnesses did not constitute a diagnosable syndrome.

There are several ongoing studies of Gulf War veterans' ailments, including medical and epidemiological investigations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Pentagon, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Some are still in their early phases.

Recently, President Clinton appointed The Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illness. It is the fifth national committee to study the matter and will deliver its report by the end of 1996.


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