A Decade of Gulf War Illness

Against the Current, No. 91, March/April 2001

Tod Ensign

“The Last Superpower: Exorcising the demon of Vietnam in the burning oil fields of Kuwait.” –Photo caption, Time magazine, Gulf War special, February 1991

THE DEMON IS back: Ten years after the U.S. air war began over Kuwait and Iraq on January 17, 1991, tens of thousands of sick Gulf War vets await treatment and/or compensation for chronic health problems brought on by their military service.

By the end of 2000, 186,000 Gulf vets and active duty GIs have sought government evaluation and treatment for a variety of symptoms they’ve exhibited since returning home from Gulf duty: neurological problems, chronic skin rashes, respiratory problems, chronic flu-like symptoms including severe body aches, immune system disorders, severe fatigue, joint pain, gynecological infections, bleeding gums and mouth lesions and unexplained rapid weight loss.

Medical evaluations by both Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) and military medical personnel have typically resulted in the conclusion “undiagnosed illness.” Government scientists can’t decide whether the health problems suffered by Gulf War vets constitute a previously unidentified medical condition, or a combination of illnesses. More importantly for veterans, these scientists haven’t been able to offer meaningful treatment protocols or credible explanations for what ails them.

What some have called “Gulf War Syndrome” most likely was brought on by exposing Gulf service personnel to a synergistic mix of multiple toxins, including:

* Smoke and pollution from over 700 oil field fires set by retreating Iraqis in Kuwait, which burned for as long as eight months after the United States launched its air war.

* Wholesale destruction of Iraqi weapons caches, many of which contained chemical nerve agents, by advancing U.S. forces. After years of denial, in 1997 the Pentagon and CIA admitted that based on computer models, at least 100,000 troops were exposed to some fallout from these detonations.

It was also revealed that a Lawrence Livermore lab study in 1990 had warned the Air Force — three months before the air war began — that bombing Iraqi chemical weapons production facilities would expose advancing U.S. troops to deadly nerve agents.(1)

* Two nerve agent vaccines: anthrax (given to 150,000 GIs) and pentavalent botulinum-toxoid (given to about 8000), neither of which had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the use to which they were put in the Gulf.

* One medication, pyridostigmine bromide (PB), administered to approximately 300,000 troops to protect against the nerve-agent soman, had been designated by the FDA as an Investigational New Drug. The Pentagon was able to beat back a court challenge to the FDA’s “waiver” of normal rules to allow PB use in the Gulf War.(2)

* Depleted Uranium weapons: radioactive fallout from the residue of DU shells fired by U.S. and British tanks and by the machine guns of the A-10 “Warthog”- attack jets. These devastating rounds, which can penetrate any standard tank armor, were used for the first time in Gulf War combat. An estimated 3155 tons of DU projectiles were fired, creating DU residue which contaminated thousands of destroyed tanks and armored vehicles as well as the area around them.(3)

* Organophosphate pesticides, which were widely used to control insects in military housing areas in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. These can interfere with normal nerve/muscle functioning by affecting enzymes. Permethrin and DEET, pyrethroid pesticides, were also issued to many GIs; sometimes military uniforms were soaked with these repellents.

* Kerosene and leaded gasoline, which were used in space heaters in unventilated tents.

Following the Gulf War, some influential analysts have argued that American victory in the Gulf was ensured by our clear advantage in sophisticated weapons and information technology. Some have predicted that “digitization of the battlefield means the end of Clausewitz,” i.e. of classical military doctrine.

Former Army chief of staff Gen. Dennis Reamer even speculated that if the Vietnam-era Pentagon had possessed the information technology it has today, we might have “won” the Vietnam War.(4) Whatever the truth of these hypotheses, there is no doubt that America’s GIs were fighting on a very toxic battlefield in the Gulf.

When the first sick veterans began to seek medical help just months after the war ended, the Bush administration responded cautiously. After all, President Bush and Generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell were still basking in the glow of their great victory, which had supposedly laid the “Vietnam syndrome” demon permanently to rest.

Once Clinton-Gore took over the sympathetic rhetoric increased, but there was little change in the behavior of either the VA or the Pentagon. Indeed Clinton allowed the upper reaches of both agencies to be staffed with some of the worst pseudo-medical hacks Washington had seen in a long time.

Blue Ribbon Whitewash

After a year of highly publicized hearings, a panel of so-called experts at the end of 1996 published a report which must have greatly pleased Bill Clinton. It allowed him to broadcast his concerns about the well-being of Gulf veterans while avoiding a showdown with the Pentagon and CIA.

The report begins by acknowledging that “many of the health concerns of Gulf vets may never be resolved fully because of lack of data.” It drily ticks off some of the deficiencies: “missing medical (and vaccination) records, absence of baseline (pre-war) health information about GIs, inaccurate information on troop locations and incomplete data on health effects (that) should have been reasonably anticipated risks.”

After admitting these deficiencies, the panel felt that it could credibly conclude that none of the principal risk factors (listed above) were “causally linked” to the health problems reported by Gulf veterans.(5)

As one of the leading veterans’ advocates, Paul Sullivan of the National Gulf War Resource Center coalition, succinctly put it, “this report was dead on arrival.”

Burying the Past, Protecting the Pentagon

Unfortunately for Gulf veterans, any assigning of blame would require the U.S. military to shoulder responsibility for its past negligence or incompetence — and possibly to abandon its use of certain weapons.

For example, many vets believe they were harmed by DU exposure. But from the command’s point of view this devastating new weapon was a resounding success: DU shells knocked out every Iraqi tank or armored vehicle they struck, to say nothing of more than a few American ones that were mistakenly hit by “friendly fire.” The generals clearly are unwilling to surrender such an advantage just because it pollutes the battlefield or causes collateral damage to GIs or the civilian population.

Another example is the injury caused by exposing GIs to fallout from chemical nerve agents. The Pentagon for several years clung to the story that few if any GIs were hit by residue from such deadly weapons. But when Sgt. Brian Martin presented a House investigative committee with a videotape he’d made of the destruction of the huge Iraqi ammo dump at Khamisiyah, the military (and CIA) were forced to change their tune.

“We placed explosives in and around 33 bunkers,” Martin told the committee. “Witnessing these awesome explosions was a remarkable sight. Our excitement however quickly turned to fear when `cook offs’ or fallout from the explosions began showering down on us.”

Martin also testified that since Khamisiyah he has suffered from “blood
in my vomit and stools, excruciatingly painful headaches, blurred vision, memory loss, severe diarrhea and mood swings.”(6)

After a long struggle, Brian Martin was finally rated by the VA as 100% permanently disabled. He had enjoyed excellent health before deploying to the Gulf.

Even after the CIA/Pentagon admission that at least 100,000 U.S. troops were exposed to varying levels of chemical nerve agents, nearly all other information about chemical and biological weapons remains classified. Former CIA analyst Patrick Eddington, author of Gassed in the Gulf: The Inside Story of the Pentagon/CIA Coverup of the Gulf War Syndrome (Insignia Press, 1997), estimates that the two agencies are withholding more than a million documents with potential bearing on the health of Gulf War vets.

What’s worse, Eddington argues that recent legislation has broadened the categories of intelligence records exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).(7)

In a related development Dr. Khidir Hamza, formerly chief of nuclear weapons programs in Iraq, charges in his new book Saddam’s Bombmaker that Saddam Hussein ordered that thousands of chemical and biological weapons be buried along the likely U.S. invasion routes:

“Saddam’s thinking was that the Allies, following U.S. tactical doctrine, would blow up the bunkers as they advanced, releasing plumes of invisible gas…onto themselves. The pattern of contamination would be so disparate and the symptoms so amorphous (that) the sources of illness couldn’t be easily confirmed.”(8)

The Pentagon’s institutional stake in continuing to downplay health effects from such exposures is all too apparent. Obviously, however, if Hamza’s account is accurate, those celebrated military commanders Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell — now George W. Bush’s Secretary of State — come off as bunglers, not to mention indictable perjurers for their sworn testimony that U.S. troops were never exposed to fallout from chemical nerve agents.

Care and Feeding of Pet Research

After the Presidential Advisory Committee report was issued, Clinton and the Pentagon decided to shift from denial to pretending to actively look for answers about Gulf War illness. A new agency was created, the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illness (OSAGWI — how they love those acronyms!) headed by retired Admiral Dr. Bernard Rostker.

Since then, this agency has spent nearly $250 million on “research” projects of dubious value. Instead of funding human health studies to compare the health of sick Gulf vets with similar people who didn’t serve in the Gulf, OSAGWI has financed mostly “literature reviews” which essentially survey the existing published scientific literature in a given area and attempt to summarize it.

Human health studies, especially those that involve medical monitoring, are of course very costly and time-consuming. They carry the added risk that they might actually uncover significant health deficits in Gulf vets that might be difficult to explain away.

One literature review, on pyridostigmine bromide (PB) pills, which were given to protect GIs against soman, backfired on the military when its author concluded: “PB cannot be ruled out as a possible contributor to . . . unexplained illness in some PGW [Persian Gulf War] veterans. Second, uncertainties remain (about) the effectiveness of PB in protecting humans against nerve agents.”(9)

After a one-day news flurry, however, the report was shelved, soon (the Pentagon hopes) to be forgotten.

Clinton’s decision to leave control of Gulf War research in the Pentagon’s hands directly contradicted a unanimous vote by the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, which stated that “Congress should create an agency independent from the DOD [Department of Defense, i.e. Pentagon] and DVA (to serve) as the lead federal agency responsible for all research into Gulf War veterans’ illnesses and…all research funds.”(10)

If one wanted a textbook example of the naked political power the Pentagon can bring to bear when it feels its prerogatives threatened, the rise of OSAGWI would be a good choice. In a special report prepared for the tenth anniversary of the Gulf War, Pat Eddington, now director of the National Gulf War Resource Center coalition, summarized OSAGWI’s efforts to date:

“Its case narratives on potential toxic exposures are replete with analytical and factual flaws…The existing DOD/DVA medical research programs are, by and large, scientifically useless (and) squander research dollars better spent on private-sector research initiatives that have demonstrated real progress in identifying disease and disability.”(11)

Rays of Hope

Unfortunately for the Pentagon, its continued control of Gulf War research has deepened the distrust felt by many veterans as well as active-duty military members. In Citizen Soldier’s recent advocacy organizing against the military’s mandatory anthrax vaccination program, young GIs would commonly mention Gulf War syndrome as an important factor in their doubts about the vaccine’s safety.

Despite the Pentagon’s iron hand, a few independent scientists have been able to publish significant human effects research on small groups of Gulf veterans. Summaries of two recent studies follow.

* University of South Texas researchers, led by Dr. Robert Haley, in September 2000 released their latest findings on potential brain damage in the Gulf.(12) Using MRI brain scans on a small number of Gulf vets, researchers found evidence of a type of brain damage that causes the overproduction of dopamine, which can lead to degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

These scientists are now seeking a $24 million research grant from the military in order to replicate their study on a national basis.

* Kansas State researchers published a study of 2000 Kansas Gulf War veterans, finding that 42% suffered from measurable Gulf war illness symptoms. Those veterans who served in the war theatre reported a higher rate of illness than those who served aboard ship or remained in the United States.(13)

In addition to mobilizing political pressure to fund independent research, Gulf War veteran advocates have also been lending support to two other initiatives which could eventually bring some compensation to ailing veterans and their families.

* A class action lawsuit against seventy multinational corporations who sold chemical weapon production equipment to Iraq is pending in Texas state court. Among the named defendants are huge American, German, Swedish and French corporations that built chemical and biological weapons facilities in Iraq, or sold the Iraqis chemical and biological products which allowed them to arm their weapons.

The theory of liability is that these companies sold the Iraqis materials and did construction work which they could have foreseen would result in the use of such weapons against U.S. service members. The suit is currently in the “discovery” of evidence phase; any trial is well in the future.

* Claims against seized Iraqi assets in the United States (which are held by a separate commission) have been filed on behalf of some injured Gulf veterans. Unfortunately, U.S. tobacco companies, supported by influential North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, have also filed claims that would exhaust the $1.5 billion fund; legislation to give priority to claims filed by Gulf veterans failed to pass the last session of Congress.

The National Gulf War Resource Center coalition, of which Citizen Soldier is a founding member, plans to call on the new Congress to enact legislation to fund Gulf War illness research outside the existing DOD/VA funding process.

In this effort NGWRC expects to receive the endorsement of the big traditional veterans’ organizations, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Disabled American Veterans. The bitter experiences of a decade have left even the die-hard Cold Warriors who lead these groups with no confidence in the discredited DOD and VA medical hierarchies.

Once again, progressive veterans and their advocates must take the lead in challenging the corrupt cynicism of the irredeemable militarists who continue to control these agencies.


  1. Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses, Second Report, (105-388) House Committee on Government Reform & Oversight, November 7, 1997, Washington D.C.
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  2. Is Military Research Hazardous to Veterans’ Health? Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, Staff Report, ISBN-16-046291-6, December 8, 1994, Washington D.C.
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  3. Case Narrative: Depleted Uranium (DU) Exposure, by Dan Fahey, Swords to Plowshares et al, July 2, 1998 (copies available from NGWRC, 800-882-1316 ext. 162).
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  4. Interview, Inside the Pentagon newsletter, October 17, 1996: 11.
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  5. Final Report, Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., December 1996.
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  6. Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses, op.cit., 11-12.
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  7. Uncounted Casualties: America’s Ailing Gulf War Veterans<D>, Special Report, National Gulf War Resource Center, January 17, 2001.
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  8. Khidir Hamza with Jeff Stein, Saddam’s Bombmaker (New York City: Scribner’s, 2000).
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  9. A Review of the Scientific Literature: Pyridostigmine Bromide<D> by Dr. Beatrice A. Golomb, National Defense Research Institute, RAND, Santa Monica, CA (1999).
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  10. Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses, op. cit., 123.
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  11. Uncounted Casualties, op.cit., 3.
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  12. See Stars and Stripes newspaper, October 9-22, 2000. Original research published in Archives of Neurology, September 2000.
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  13. Prevalence and Patterns of GWI in Kansas Veterans, by Lea Steele, Ph.D., American Journal of Epidemiology, Vol. 152 No. 10, November 15, 2000.
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ATC 91, March-April 2001