December 29, 2008, Charleston, SC – Federal officials have been saying for more than a decade that Gulf War syndrome does not exist.
Yet mounting evidence from researchers and cries from lawmakers, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller, might indicate otherwise.
Last month, a 452-page report conducted by the Boston University School of Public Health found that one in four Gulf War veterans show signs of the disputed illness, which is characterized by chronic fatigue, headaches, muscle pain and other gnawing symptoms.
That amounts to about 174,000 veterans afflicted by the syndrome.
Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who’s stepping down as chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee, told his colleagues earlier this month to review the report and act on it.
The senator said it was shameful that neither the Department of Defense nor the Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledge Gulf War syndrome as a real illness.
“We were stonewalled by the DOD in hearing after hearing after hearing,” Rockefeller said of several meetings on the issue since the early 1990s. “They thought we were wrong, crazy, and came up with some kind of cockamamie theory. No matter what we produced, they’d send it back and call it nonsense.”
Researchers attribute Gulf War syndrome to pesticide and neurotoxin exposure in the Persian Gulf and use of an experimental drug not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or even tested on animals.
During the war, soldiers were ordered to take a chemical called pyridostigmine bromide in pill form to prevent harm from exposure to the nerve gas soman. It was believed that soman, which shuts down the function of muscles and the brain, could have been used in a chemical attack on military personnel.
But it was later determined that the drug given to soldiers had no effect in combating their exposure to chemical weapons.
Rockefeller said the federal government didn’t do its homework.
Other symptoms of Gulf War syndrome include loss of muscle control, dizziness, skin problems, memory loss and indigestion.
The psychological effects are just as damaging.
“When I ran into these people, in nearly every case, their marriages were broken up, they couldn’t read newspapers, they wanted to sleep all the time, had terrible headaches, widespread joint pain, skin rashes, the whole gamut,” Rockefeller said. “But they’d go to a VA hospital and were told to take aspirin, go home and get a good sleep.”
Rockefeller said he’s met personally with Gulf War veterans suffering from the illness. One of the veterans was a woman from South Charleston who was experiencing loss of muscle control in her left arm.
The recent report states there is no effective treatment for Gulf War syndrome. Veterans, however, cannot receive benefits if they’re specifically diagnosed with “Gulf War illness” or “Gulf War syndrome” since the federal government doesn’t recognize it as a unique condition.
The study also concludes that while the federal government has spent millions of dollars in research and treatment for Gulf War veterans, those efforts don’t cut it.
“My attitude is that we should never stop fighting until they get the money and benefits they need,” Rockefeller said. “You’ve got to fight for these people. Veterans aren’t big complainers, but I know they’re angry. These soldiers were fiddling around with neurotoxic chemicals and pesticides and nobody in the DOD gave a hoot.”
Rockefeller said he’d continue to push for those veterans as a member of the Senate Veterans Committee. He had to step down from his post as chairman in order to take over as head of the Senate Commerce Committee.
With even more soldiers fighting and returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Rockefeller is concerned this segment of veterans has been forgotten.
“They’re totally forgotten,” he said. “No one ever really paid attention to them. Folks are just staying sick and not getting treatment. It’s pretty obnoxious.”