Gulf Lore Syndrome

By Michael Fumento

Reason Magazine, March 1997
Copyright 1997 Reason Magazine

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This article was a 1998 finalist in the "Public Interest" category of the National Magazines Award.


Why are the Gulf War vets getting sick? You won’t find out by reading The New York Times and USA Today.

"For Some, a Day of Betrayal," ran a headline in Denver’s Rocky Mountain News the day before Veterans Day. A Persian Gulf vet said to be suffering the effects of the mysterious Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) was profiled, and the story by reporter Dick Foster contained a startling figure:

"Cancers have developed in Gulf veterans at three to six times the rate among the general population." That news must have shot around Colorado faster than a Scud missile. Many vets probably spent their Veterans Day searching for lumps, bumps, sores, or anything else that might be a sign of cancer.

Three days later, a study appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine. Using the latest data available, it reported the cancer rate of Persian Gulf vets was slightly below that of comparable vets who didn’t deploy to the Gulf, and far lower than that of the comparable civilian population.

Welcome to the world of Gulf Lore Syndrome. It is a world in which science is replaced by rumor, in which vets are presented as medical experts while real medical experts are ignored. It is a dimension in which authoritative review studies by eminent scientists are scorned and disdainfully labeled "Pentagon studies" because they reach the "wrong" conclusions — even if done by civilian organizations.

Yet incredible accounts of such symptoms as skin-blistering semen and glowing vomit are taken as gospel. It is a "reality" constructed by crusading reporters, activists, demagogic congressmen, and, sadly, by Persian Gulf vets who have become convinced they are the victims of a conspiracy deeper and broader than anything on The X-Files. The sick vets live in this world of Gulf Lore Syndrome. Until reality is allowed to reach them, they will remain trapped in it.

I have been writing on GWS since 1993, and to the best of my knowledge I was the first writer to say that there is no Gulf War Syndrome in the accepted sense of the term. Since then, studies by some of the most prestigious scientists in the country have backed up that position. The early studies included two by the Department of Defense, one by the National Institutes of Health, and a preliminary report by the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

All said that the term Gulf War Syndrome was a misnomer. All said that the various theories of what might be making Persian Gulf vets sick lacked any scientific basis. And every one of these studies’ conclusions bounced off the reporters, the activists, and the sick vets like bullets off an M1 tank.

Some things have changed: When I began writing on the topic there were perhaps a hundred news reports about GWS; there are now over 4,000. Back then there were a few thousand Persian Gulf vets who claimed to have the illness; now, depending on who’s counting, there are anywhere from 40,000 to more than 100,000. GWS studies continue to appear. The most recent include:

  • The final report from the Institute of Medicine, which said in October that there is no "scientific evidence to date demonstrating adverse health consequences linked with [Gulf War] service other than [about 30] documented incidents of leishmaniasis [a parasitical disease caused, in this case, by sand fly bites], combat-related or injury-related mortality or morbidity, and increased risk of psychiatric [problems from] deployment."

  • A draft copy of the final report of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses (commonly called the PAC), leaked in November to The New York Times and The Washington Post, which found "no support for the myriad theories proposed as causes of illnesses among Persian Gulf war veterans, or even evidence there is a ’Gulf War Syndrome,’" according to the Post.

  • The article in the November 14 New England Journal of Medicine, which found that Persian Gulf vets had the same death rate from disease as non Persian Gulf vets, and a much lower rate than the comparable civilian population. An accompanying article looked at hospitalizations, finding Persian Gulf vets and non Persian Gulf vets hospitalized at the same rate.

Will these findings make any difference? Within days of the PAC draft report’s release, President Clinton announced a doubling of the budget to investigate GWS. A few weeks later, he announced that the PAC final report would not be a final one after all, that he was going to keep the committee going albeit perhaps dumping some old members and assigning new ones.

Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) called two days of highly publicized hearings to denounce the government and parade one sick soldier after another to testify before his congressional panel, each claiming that his symptoms were beyond doubt the result of GWS. Apparently, science is still reaching the wrong conclusion.

Myths Fit to Print

What pulled me back into the fray was the recent series of revelations concerning the demolition of bunkers at Khamisiyah, Iraq. The unit that blew up those bunkers was the 37th Engineer Battalion (Combat) (Airborne). In May, the Pentagon said U.N. inspectors had found that one of those bunkers and a nearby open pit contained Iraqi rockets marked to indicate a nerve gas called sarin.

Thus, while the Pentagon could (and did) continue to say that there had been no offensive use of chemical weapons against U.S. troops, it was now clear that American soldiers had been close enough to exploding chemical weapons to be exposed to them.

The 37th was my sister unit when I was in the 27th Engineers at Ft. Bragg, a decade earlier. I had lived in the same barracks and worn those same silver wings that mark the Army’s proud elite, the paratrooper. I knew these soldiers in ways other reporters did not. What they would tell me in weeks of interviews taught me a great deal about GWS.

I interviewed eight of these men, beginning with former Pfc. Brian Martin. Martin is by far the most prominent 37th Engineer vet, having appeared on 60 Minutes twice, on Nightline, Geraldo, Montel Williams, and Tom Snyder, and having been quoted by news wires, newspapers, and magazines, including the Associated Press, Gannett, The Detroit News, Newsday, Playboy, and one of a series of articles by The New York Times’s Philip Shenon. Martin, 33, is also co-president (with his wife) of International Advocacy for Gulf War Syndrome.

Being a disabled vet is his life; indeed, his Web page lists his occupation as "disabled veteran," while his e-mail address is "dsveteran." Martin is quick with a sound bite, such as, "I used to jump out of airplanes and now I can’t even jump up and down." Sometimes he walks with a cane; other times he uses a wheelchair. We talked about our old brigade a bit. He explained to me the process of destroying the bunkers at Khamisiyah, and then I asked him to tell me about his symptoms. That was the first hint that something was seriously amiss about Pfc. Martin.

His long list of symptoms included such things as lupus — an autoimmune disease rarely found in men — and "early Alzheimer’s." Sensationalist reporters just eat up things like this, but to a medical writer such symptoms were like flapping red flags.

Then the red flag unfurled. Martin told me what he would later tell a congressional panel headed by Shays on September 19, 1996. After returning from the Gulf, he told the panel, "during PT [physical training] I would vomit Chemlite-looking fluids every time I ran; an ambulance would pick me up, putting IVs in both arms, rushing me to Womack Community Hospital. This happened every morning after my return from the war."

Chemlites are tubes that, when snapped, glow. In two conversations with me, Martin repeatedly referred to his vomit as being "fluorescent" and said these daily vomits lasted from "March 11 to December 31," 1991. Thus, we are dealing with a man who insists both that his vomit glows and that his NCOs and officers heartlessly insisted that he do physical training for 10 months, knowing that "every morning" he would end up in the hospital with IV tubes in his arms.

If Martin volunteered the vomiting story during both of my interviews with him, it’s very likely he told it to every other reporter who interviewed him. Yet they all used Martin as a credible witness, omitting this peculiarity from their accounts. There are two reporters that we know with certainty did this, because they attended the September 19 hearings and wrote about Martin’s testimony.

One was AP reporter Donna Abu-Nasr. I called her and asked why she didn’t mention the glowing vomit remark. "I didn’t notice it," she said. Did she think it impugned Martin’s credibility? No, she said. "You have to remember he’s been on talk shows, and they’ve written a lot about him." She then said, "Are you going to quote me?" I told her that was my job as a reporter, but I wouldn’t if she insisted. Not good enough. "I think that’s very dishonest of you," she said, and hung up.

The other reporter who covered the hearing was John Hanchette at Gannett News Service, the chain that owns USA Today. Hanchette, a 1980 Pulitzer Prize winner, has probably written more articles on GWS — over 80 — than any other single reporter, sometimes alone and sometimes with Norm Brewer.

Given his reputation and sheer volume, he’s certainly had a big impact on the perception of GWS. The titles of his stories show his slant: "Active-Duty Soldiers Tear into Pentagon Over Gulf Syndrome"; "Are Gulf Veterans Getting Needed Treatment?"; "Several Gulf Units Plagued by Unusually High Illness Rate"; "White House Panel: Pentagon Can’t Be Trusted in Persian Gulf War Syndrome Probe"; "Persian Gulf Illnesses — the Lingering War"; "Gulf War Parents with Birth Defect Children: All They Want Are Answers."

In his coverage of Martin’s testimony, Hanchette chopped Martin’s symptom list down to nine, omitting the glowing vomit. Nor is that all he did. Rather than merely attributing the laundry list of symptoms to Martin, Hanchette wrote that these symptoms were supported by "federal medical exams," making Martin’s symptom list sound far more credible.

But I had called Martin’s doctors (with numbers Martin provided), and while Department of Veterans Affairs rules prohibit them from talking about any specific patient, I got around this by asking them if any of their patients had the various symptoms Martin claimed.

Often, the answer was no. Some of the illnesses the doctors said they had not observed in any of their patients — such as lupus — were among those Hanchette listed as confirmed by Martin’s "federal medical exams."

What exams could Hanchette possibly have been referring to? I politely called Hanchette four times just to say I wanted to talk about his story. He didn’t call back. I called twice more to say that I had reason to believe he had engaged in unethical conduct and that I wanted to give him a chance to respond. He still hasn’t called back.

So I called Hanchette’s editor, Jeffrey Stinson. In defending his reporter, Stinson noted twice that Hanchette was a Pulitzer winner, called my questions "a crock," and said he really couldn’t comment further without seeing the relevant material. I faxed over Martin’s testimony, Hanchette’s write-up, and a list of questions. Stinson’s response: "Our stuff is good; it’s accurate. You’re full of it, pal. Bye." Then he hung up.

60 Minutes of Alarm

Martin always has a good tale to tell. Hanchette and others have reported his claim that 95 percent of the weaponry in the Khamisiyah bunkers was U.S.-made. But such a survey would have been an exhaustive undertaking and hardly the job of the battalion commander’s driver, which was what Martin was.

Hanchette and others have written about the videotape Martin claims to have shot of the bunker ordnance. Actually, his company commander shot it; Martin’s copy was a low-tech dubbing made by aiming his video camera at a TV set as his commander’s tape played.

But Martin’s tallest tale is his claim that after the Khamisiyah bunker exploded and chemical alarms went off, the 37th soldiers did not put on their protective gear.

Indeed, said Martin, they didn’t even have access to it. That’s the version Newsday, AP, The Detroit News, and others went with. It makes the military look very negligent and supports the allegation that these men were exposed to nerve gas.

Ed Bradley and 60 Minutes built a whole segment around the allegation, broadcast in August. Bradley is the reporter who kicked off the Alar scare back in 1989 with his completely unfounded claim that the pesticide was "the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply."

In the August show, Bradley told viewers the chemical weapons expert for the battalion, former Sgt. Dan Topalski, "put his suit on right away. Others did not. He is the only man in this group who is not sick."

Pretty damning stuff — were it true. But there were five other vets from the 37th Engineer Battalion who appeared on that 60 Minutes broadcast, and each of them told me they and every soldier they saw were at "MOPP 4," meaning fully suited. I also called the battalion executive officer, Maj. Randy Riggins, now retired. Bradley’s portrayal "was a total farce," he said. Riggins added that Martin was "really going over the edge." The enlisted men I interviewed were mostly less charitable to Martin ("He’s full of shit," was the most common refrain) though they were all thankful that Martin had drawn attention to GWS.

Ed Bradley even explained why the soldiers didn’t suit up. "With continued use," he said, the gear "didn’t last long, and since there had been so many false alarms, they were running out of suits." The next clip showed Topalski saying the battalion commander had issued "a directive that people would go into a mask-only posture and seek the cover of a tent or poncho liner, and people were not to use their suits unless specifically told to do so."

But Bradley used that quote wildly out of context. Topalski wasn’t talking about Khamisiyah, but about Rhafa, Saudi Arabia, where the battalion had been encamped previously. "I had told them [60 Minutes] specifically that we were not told that at Khamisiyah, we were told that at Rhafa," Topalski said to me.

Khamisiyah ammunition storage depot

Did the vets make it absolutely clear to Bradley that they had put on their protective suits? "When we were talking to Ed Bradley, yes, we did tell him that we went to MOPP 4 when we were at Khamisiyah," former Specialist 4 Dan Cook told me. Former Sgt. Christian Toulious says he also told Liza McGuirk, the producer of the 60 Minutes segment.

Bradley led his audience to believe all the vets’ symptoms began after the Khamisiyah blast. "They’re sick," he said, "and so are dozens more from their unit with the same symptoms thousands of other Gulf War veterans have: headaches, stomach ailments, nerve damage."

And, said Bradley, "All of these men point to the day it happened, the day they blew up the huge warehouse containing the deadly nerve gas sarin."

In fact, several of the vets he interviewed, including Martin, told me they had symptoms months before the Khamisiyah demolition.

And although Bradley said that the suited-up Topalski was "the only man in this group who is not sick," Topalski told me, "I never once told Bradley I was healthy. I said I had a lot of problems, but I said they could be attributable to something else" besides the Khamisiyah blast.

The other vets I interviewed confirmed he had said this. He said he also told this to producer McGuirk, three weeks before the show aired. Yet Bradley’s false statement was left in.

I called McGuirk, who told me she had no reason to think that Martin wasn’t a credible witness. When I told her that some of the other vets claimed she ignored vital information they gave her, she said, "I’m not going to talk to you any further. I’m afraid I have to get off the phone." She hung up. Ed Bradley did not return my calls.

Syndrome Over Science

To doctors, bizarre symptom claims like glowing vomit are a ready indicator that they are dealing with a patient suffering hysteria.

"It’s an old joke around ER; we ask if people’s stools glow in the dark or if their hair hurts," Dr. Scott Kurtzman, assistant professor of surgery at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, told me.

But to the media, such symptoms are the makings of a great story. Kate McKenna’s article, "The Curse of Desert Storm," in the March 1996 Playboy, didn’t mention Brian Martin’s vomit but said that he is "often confined to a wheelchair" because of "a diarrhetic condition that has damaged his spine."

Perhaps the makers of Kaopectate should advertise that it may be effective in preventing spinal injury.

McKenna and other reporters have also alerted us to the claim by Persian Gulf vets’ wives (including Kimberly Martin) that their husbands’ semen is burning and blistering them. "Shooting fire," they call it. Life magazine mentioned it in a cover article about vets’ kids ("The Tiny Victims of Desert Storm"), later a finalist for a National Magazine Award. Hanchette and Brewer at Gannett built a whole article around it, declaring, "Sometimes the semen causes blisters, rashes and itching on exterior skin." They didn’t write that somebody reported such an occurrence; they just stated it as a fact.

Skin blistering from semen, like Elvis sightings, has provided lots of claims but never any verifications. I talked to several VA doctors, all of whom said they’ve heard about the phenomenon but have never actually seen any such blistered or burned skin.

In fact, some women do develop allergic reactions to semen, according to Dr. David Bernstein, an allergist at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, who has studied the "burning sperm" claims. He says the reaction is typically simply redness of the skin inside or outside the vagina. But blistering?

"Personally, I’ve never seen that," Bernstein said politely. But Dr. Marvin Ligator, director of the toxicology and epidemiology department at the University of Texas Medical Branch, burst out laughing when I asked him about it.

As to whether something the vets were exposed to could cause any seminal reaction at all, Ligator said, "There are chemicals we know of that get into semen, but I’ve never heard of anything that causes burns or irritation." Bernstein concurred with Ligator.

Such bizarre symptoms may sound absurd. But to a vet who hears them through the grapevine and then sees them validated in print, they’re horrifying. "There’s been one soldier who died because his brain turned to mush," a 37th Engineer vet told me. "A softening of the brain matter is very well known" as a symptom of GWS, he explained.

A key component of Gulf Lore Syndrome entails suspending the laws of science whenever necessary. Consider the first death widely attributed to GWS, that of Army Reservist Michael Adcock. Adcock died in 1992 at the age of 22 from what began as a lymphoma (cancer of the lymph glands) and then spread to the rest of his body.

Without doubt he believed — as his mother Hester testified before Congress — that he had contracted the lymphoma from exposure to something in the Gulf. His last words, she said, were, "Mama, fight for me. Don’t let this happen to another soldier."

The congressmen listened solemnly, and the media faithfully reported the story. But Army Surgeon General spokeswoman Virginia Stephanakis told me that Adcock "had rectal bleeding [the first symptom of his lymphoma] six days after arriving, and the family blamed it on the Gulf."

It is universally accepted by the medical community that lymphomas take years to develop, perhaps 10 or more years on average. Not months, not weeks, and certainly not days.

Likewise, former Navy Seabee (combat engineer) Reservist Nick Roberts claims to have contracted his lymphoma within weeks of what he claims was a nerve gas attack. Roberts is almost as popular with reporters as Brian Martin. The AP, USA Today, States News Service, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, and Esquire in its cover story on GWS have all portrayed Roberts as a prototypical GWS victim, using such headlines as "Walking Wounded" and "Trail of Symptoms Suggests Chem-Arms."

I’ve talked to Roberts, and I’m sure he’s convinced of what he says. But his claim is a medical impossibility, and none of the stories about him bothered to make that clear.

Roberts appeared before Shays’s committee on the same day as Martin, so I called Robert Newman, the Shays staffer who invited them both to testify. I asked Newman first about Martin’s daily spewing of glowing vomit.

"In the overall scheme of things," Newman told me, "that’s got to be a minor point." Well, OK. What about Roberts’s lymphoma? "Do you know how long it takes a lymphoma to develop?" I asked Newman. "It takes a long time to develop," Newman said. "So you’re willing to concede that Roberts’s lymphoma couldn’t have had anything to do with exposure from something in the Gulf?" I asked. "I’m not going to concede anything," he said.

No, he certainly wasn’t. It is part of the strategy of the lore spreaders that you never, ever admit that any vet’s claims are incredible, or that even a single veteran anywhere might be suffering psychosomatic illness. Newman ended our conversation by saying, "You caught me at a bad time because I’m in another crisis. Call me tomorrow." I did, and several times after that. We never talked again.

It is bad enough that the media and Congress always treat Persian Gulf vets as experts in self-diagnosis, but they’re even considered experts in diagnosing others. Roberts told a congressional panel in November 1993 that of the 33 members in his military reserve unit, 10 in addition to him have been diagnosed with lymphomas.

Were that true it would probably be the most amazing cancer cluster in history. He also held up a list of what he said were 173 cancer-stricken Gulf veterans, and the media duly reported his comments. Yet five months later, an update of the Persian Gulf Registry showed only eight lymphomas out of all the Gulf vets in the country, with 38 cancers of all types.

There have been reports of mysterious illness clusters throughout the GWS scare. Vets or their spouses will call other vets, essentially doing their own epidemiological study. Often they conclude that they are suffering an abnormal amount of illness. They then contact the media, who publicize these "findings," gingerly referring to them as "unofficial investigations."

The Institute of Medicine looked at three such reports, including one involving Nick Roberts’s reserve Seabee unit. In all three cases, the IOM found that, while the symptoms tended to be the same among the three groups, these were classic psychosomatic manifestations. The outbreak studies, said the IOM, "were not successful in demonstrating that these symptoms occurred at a higher rate among PGW [Persian Gulf War] veterans than among [other] PGW-era veterans, or that these symptoms could be linked to specific medical diagnoses or exposures."

The most famous of the self-diagnosed clusters occurred in Mississippi, involving alleged defects in the babies of vets. These reports added a whole new dimension to the disease. Among the heart-wrenching stories built around the "cluster" were "Gulf Syndrome Kills Babies," "A Town in Torment," and Ladies Home Journal’s "What’s Wrong with Our Children?"

The basic story, as Nightline’s reporter told it, was, "In Waynesville, Mississippi, 13 of 15 babies born to returning members of a National Guard Unit were reported to have severe and often rare health problems." It didn’t say the report was "prepared," as it were, by the parents themselves.

The Mississippi Department of Health investigated the alleged cluster and found that of 54 births to returning Guardsmen in that state, both major and minor defects were well within the expected range. There were also no more premature or low-birth-weight children than would be expected.

Since then, several birth-defect and miscarriage studies have looked for exceptional rates among the offspring of Persian Gulf vets. They have found none. In addition, all live births to Persian Gulf vets are being tracked, with birth defects compared to those in the offspring of non-deployed soldiers.

When last analyzed, the children of the Gulf War vets had the same percentage of birth defects as the children of the comparison soldiers. But of all the media outlets that originally reported on the alleged Mississippi cluster, only CNN later told its audience of the state’s report. So the "Town in Torment" remains a staple of Gulf Lore.

Dr. Russell Tarver, who headed up the study, told me, "It’s unconscionable to frighten people out of reproducing unless you have some good data to support that contention." He called it "a crime against those veterans."

A Little Knowledge

Look, the vets did their job in the Gulf. These men and women are not supposed to be medical experts, and it’s not their fault the media and Congress insist on treating them as such.

Yet the medical knowledge on the part of the non-vet GWS advocates is just as appalling. Consider a 1996 article by Maggie O’Kane in the British newspaper The Guardian. She wrote that American Dr. Howard Urnovitz "says the syndrome can be successfully treated with an antibiotic called doxycycline, which attacks the cocktail of viruses that many experts say has led to the illness."

Later in the article O’Kane quotes GWS activist James Tuite II, former GWS investigator for Sen. Don Riegle (D-Mich.). "There’s no doubt this treatment is working, but the problem is that viruses can develop an immunity to some antibiotics like doxycycline," said Tuite, "and if they stop taking them then the disease can come back."

No, actually antibiotics can’t cure viruses at all; antibiotics treat only bacteria. I guessed that what Dr. Urnovitz had said is that doxycycline could treat secondary bacterial infections that sometimes arise when a person is suffering from a virus. He confirmed this to me. "This was not a very well-vetted story," he told me, though — as we’ll see — he was glad for the publicity.

Who are these people who don’t know what an antibiotic does? Well, Maggie O’Kane is one of her country’s most influential GWS reporters. She has repeatedly written on the subject and even produced a TV documentary. Twice named Journalist of the Year, O’Kane won the 1996 James Cameron Award for reporting "of the highest quality"; the judges specifically cited her GWS coverage, calling her a "truth-seeking missile."

Tuite is America’s most influential GWS activist, although the media outlets that cite his claims ("our government is ultimately responsible for more casualties than Saddam Hussein," he told the Presidential Advisory Committee, because of "what they’ve been concealing for the past five years") have usually treated him as a neutral observer.

Denise Nichols’s September 19 testimony before Congress was on the same level of medical expertise. Nichols, a former Air Force nurse, is a Persian Gulf vet and Colorado coordinator of the Desert Storm Veterans Coalition. She told Shays’s committee that she had transmitted GWS to one of her children.

"My own daughter, along with the child of another Colorado veteran, has been diagnosed with congenital cataracts, which she did not have before my return from the Gulf," she testified. Somehow, a nurse didn’t know that congenital means "from or at birth"; her doctor was telling her that her daughter did not "catch" her cataracts as a result of her mother’s Gulf duty.

Or consider Rocky Mountain News reporter Dick Foster’s claim that Persian Gulf vets have a cancer rate of three to six times that of the civilian population. Asked his source, he cited William L. Marcus’s congressional testimony in June 1996. The figure Marcus gave was not for cancers as a whole but for one specific cancer of the bone marrow called multiple myeloma.

Marcus gave no overall cancer figure. Is even the multiple myeloma figure accurate? Five days before the hearings, CDC Director David Satcher sent a letter to Shays with information explaining in detail why the data from which Marcus was drawing "are not adequate to assess whether service in the Gulf War resulted in increased risk for" tumors or death from cancer. A VA representative who testified before the committee concurred. The data were too limited not only to say just how many Gulf vets had cancer, but also to determine what a normal rate of cancer would be.

Both sides of Marcus’s equation, then, were useless. What we can say is that as of the end of 1996, of 52,000 vets from the Persian Gulf Registry who had been medically evaluated, only two had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

As for Marcus, he’s not an epidemiologist or statistician but an EPA toxicologist who took it upon himself as a private citizen to do his own calculations. He has not authored a study that has appeared in a peer-reviewed journal; he’s authored no study at all. No one has checked his numbers.

But once Marcus was given the stamp of "expert" by Congress, Foster felt free to use his data. Foster then extrapolated from one type of cancer to all cancers. Now Foster’s own article is on the Nexis and Dialog computer databases for any enterprising reporter to pull up and reuse.

Similarly, the 37th’s Toulious told me he was frightened by the sudden upsurge in Persian Gulf vet deaths he’d heard about. "Who told you that?" I asked. It was Maj. Denise Nichols, he told me, the woman whose daughter got her congenital cataracts by contagion.

"She’s great," Toulious told me. "She’s awesome." Sure enough, Nichols has been going to GWS meetings and saying that from the end of the war to November 1995, 2,900 Persian Gulf vets had died, yet by May 1996, the number had skyrocketed to 4,291. Local newspapers dutifully wrote it up.

I called Nichols to ask her source for the figures, and she specified an office at the VA. I called that office and talked to spokesman Terry Jemison, who explained Nichols’s data are a splicing of "two different numbers." The first number was deaths from all causes among veterans of Operation Desert Storm itself, about 700,000 people. The second number was deaths among anyone who had served in the Gulf region since 1990, over a million people. Obviously a bigger base number of people is going to yield more deaths.

Joyce Riley: All-American conspiracy theorist.

Jemison told me there are even wilder numbers in circulation, "numbers that we not only can’t corroborate, but can’t even figure out the source for." He cited the case of reserve Air Force nurse Cpt. Joyce Riley, director of the American Gulf War Veterans Association, who says she contracted GWS from her patients. She made a speech saying 10,000 to 12,000 Persian Gulf vets have now died. Her speech has since been posted on the Internet. She also says that the U.S. government invented not only the biological weapons that cause GWS but the AIDS virus as well.

For the Gulf vets, rumor is often their reality. Thus two months before this article even appeared, activists were calling vets and telling them not only that it had appeared but providing allegedly exact quotes. Brian Martin called to berate me for having written that despite his claims of being sick he was able to mow his lawn. "That’s bullshit," he said. Yes, more so than he knew.

In late December, I debated Denise Nichols on a Denver talk show. She said Christian Toulious was very upset with me for having "twisted" his words around. Yet the first time I ever quoted Toulious is in the article you’re reading, which had just gone into galleys the day before.

The only Toulious quotes it contained coincidentally related to Denise Nichols and consisted of "She’s great," and "She’s awesome!" I wonder which quote she thinks is twisted? I later called Toulious, who confirmed he had heard my article had appeared and had misquoted him. He apologized for having been angry at me and says that he’s now become utterly exasperated with the rumor mill.

"I just have two words for all these people," he said. "Prove it."

Wise words, indeed.

Post Gulf, Ergo Propter Gulf

Much of what drives the GWS myth is the simplest of fallacies: that if something happens after a given event, it must have been caused by that event. The GWS fallacy works like this: The vets were obviously healthy when they went to the Gulf, or they wouldn’t have been sent. Now they’re sick. Therefore it must have been something in the Gulf that made them ill.

Appearing on Nightline, Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) invoked the fallacy repeatedly with such statements as: "They were totally healthy when they went over to the Persian Gulf. No problems whatsoever. They come back and all of the sudden their children are [born] defective, they can’t have children, or they [the children] die."

So what happened to these vets? It depends not just on whom you ask, but what day you happened to ask them. Consider just the headlines from some of the stories authored or co-authored by Hanchette:

  • "Experimental Drugs on Gulf Troops Rapped by Panel"
  • "Key to Gulf War Syndrome May Be Flies"
  • "Doctor Says Gulf Illnesses Stem from Vaccines"
  • "CIA Document: Scud Fuel May Be Involved in Gulf War Illnesses"
  • "U.N. Intelligence Representatives Show Iraq Could Have Spread Deadly Aflatoxin"

Just can’t make up our minds, can we? It’s not uncommon for a vet or activist or reporter to insist that one thing is absolutely, definitely the cause of GWS, and later to insist that something else is absolutely, definitely the cause. Sometimes the media or activists will even use a sort of shotgun approach.

Nightline’s GWS show in October, which left no doubt that GWS was both real and spreading, first indicated the cause was nerve gas. That nerve gas symptoms couldn’t possibly spread from person to person was apparently considered inconsequential.

The Nightline reporter then proceeded to blame pyridostigmine bromide (PB) pills the vets had taken. Then it was exposure to fumes from oil wells. Again, neither of these could possibly cause symptoms that are communicable, but that too seemed not to matter.

Vets and their families will often be influenced by these shifting fads, as in the case of Michael Adcock, the Persian Gulf vet who died of cancer. In May 1993, the fad cause of GWS was multiple chemical sensitivity, and that month Adcock’s mother, Hester, told The Washington Times, "Beyond a shadow of a doubt, I believe Michael died of multiple chemical exposure" in the Gulf.

She cited oil well fires, fresh paint on vehicles, and lead in the diesel fuel used in lanterns and heaters. Six months later the fad cause of GWS was nerve gas, and Mrs. Adcock testified before Congress, doubtless sincerely, that her son’s disease was from nerve gas released by a Scud missile the day before his first symptom of lymphoma appeared.

Though the fads come and go, the main two so far have been PB and Iraqi chemical weapons. PB was given to many of the troops because of evidence from animal experimentation that it could provide some protection if they were hit by one type of nerve gas. A Nexis search shows no fewer than 175 stories implicating PB as a possible cause of GWS.

But the focus on PB has more to do with confusion over terms than with science. Time and again, the media have described PB using the fear-triggering word experimental. Hanchette and Brewer at Gannett did so in two different articles, calling it "unlicensed" in a third. The soldiers "had no idea they were taking an investigational drug," Ed Bradley told 60 Minutes viewers, with a follow-up quote from a vet in combat fatigues saying, "We’ve been used as guinea pigs."

What virtually no one out there in media- and activist-land says is that PB was "experimental" or "investigational" only insofar as its ability to prevent illness from nerve agents went. The drug itself comes from a class of pharmaceuticals that has been in use since 1864.

Far from being "unlicensed," it was licensed by the FDA in 1955 to treat a neuromuscular disease called myasthenia gravis. Moreover, the dose given to myasthenia gravis patients ranges from 360 to 6,000 milligrams daily. In contrast, U.S. soldiers in the Gulf were given a one-week supply of PB, with three 30-milligram pills to be taken daily.

This is why both the NIH and IOM panels rejected out of hand the notion that PB could be causing illness among Persian Gulf vets, with the NIH saying that even at the massive doses taken by the myasthenia gravis sufferers, PB has shown "no significant long-term effects." Yet one newspaper, in attributing the ills of Persian Gulf vet Carol Picou to the PB pills, went so far as to tell its readers that PB has never even been tested on women and was only the subject of a single test on men.

The second main culprit, nerve gas, has become a popular GWS suspect for reasons more psychological than scientific. "Chemical weapons are not useful as tactical weapons," FDA specialist Peter Procter told a wire service reporter during the 1990 Gulf buildup. Only 3 percent of Iranians gassed during the Iran-Iraq war died. It was hardly because Hitler was a humanitarian that he refrained from using sarin, the new nerve gas his scientists had invented, but rather because his experts convinced him that the old-fashioned high explosive shells and rockets were far more effective.

But the received wisdom among American civilians, soldiers, reporters, and even government officials is that chemical weapons are incredibly efficient killing machines, so much so that they are regularly lumped into the category "weapons of mass destruction," alongside hydrogen bombs. Such weapons are mostly effective "as weapons of terrorism," the FDA’s Proctor said six years ago.

"Did I help create the ’Mother of All Mass Hysterias,’ or what?"

"The greatest fear among the soldiers on the line," wrote one reporter shortly before the Persian Gulf ground war began, "is the likelihood that the enemy artillery will be firing rounds of mustard gas and nerve gas." Thus, it’s only natural that Gulf War vets seeking a cause for their symptoms would convince themselves that they must have been gassed.

But there are many problems with the gassing scenario. One is that, as the October IOM report stated, "there are no confirmed reports of clinical manifestations of acute nerve agent exposure." True, some vets are now claiming they remember being gassed, but not one of them reported to clinics then.

Chemical alarms went off constantly during the war, supposed evidence of gas attacks. But chemical alarms are made to be hypersensitive, for obvious reasons. Even a "confirmed" gas detection doesn’t necessarily indicate the presence of gas; it’s just a more specific test than the initial one.

The news that sarin nerve gas weapons were blown up at Khamisiyah with U.S. troops standing three miles away gave a new boost to the chemical weapons theory.

The Gulf Lore Syndrome machine went into overdrive, led by New York Times reporter Philip Shenon. He churned out article after article, many on the front page, filled with speculation on the long-term effects of nerve gas poisoning and featuring sad interviews with members of the 37th. Later, the Pentagon stated the obvious, that the cloud containing debris from the explosion must have floated somewhere, possibly over a large number of troops. This led to such amazing headlines as "Gulf War Gassed 15,000?"

But as such a cloud spread, it would naturally thin and degrade to nothingness. It’s like pouring a small dose of arsenic into a reservoir serving 15,000 people and claiming they’ve all been "exposed" to a deadly poison. The most important fact is that no soldier in the 37th, the unit that was right there, reported any acute symptoms of nerve gas poisoning. Not even Brian Martin.

Thus, we’re being told that exposure so slight that nobody even knew about it at the time is now causing terrible, widespread harm. We are also told that there’s no scientific evidence as to whether this is possible.

In fact, the Persian Gulf Illnesses Investigation Team, the same Department of Defense appointed group which first posted the news about Khamisiyah on the Internet, also released a "Report on Possible Effects of Organophosphate ’Low-Level’ Nerve Agent Exposure." Sarin gas is an organophosphate. The report states, "The concept of low-agent exposure is not realistic. These are highly volatile substances and disappear quickly." Further, "it is hard to imagine an open-air situation in which low concentrations would not disappear to zero levels within moments." Not days, not hours. Moments.

The report then surveys the scientific literature on nerve gas exposure. Among these was a test on over 1,400 subjects, from which a National Academy of Sciences panel concluded there were no long-term effects. These subjects were exposed to a range of gas levels from low, symptomless doses all the way to those that caused acute illness. Another report on 297 cases of accidental exposure among workers manufacturing nerve agents found that about a fifth initially had symptoms, but all "eventually returned to work fully functional."

The Investigation Team notes the unlikelihood of "illnesses from very low levels of exposures in the presence of overwhelming evidence that those illnesses do not occur with high and longer levels of exposure. This would be incompatible with empirical science and the principles of biology and pharmacology."

The October 1996 IOM report also concluded "there is no available evidence in human or animal studies to date that exposure to nerve agents at low levels that do not produce any detectable acute clinical or physiological manifestations results in any chronic or long-term adverse health effects."

All this evidence has been virtually ignored by the media. "I have tried in my stories to point it out," one Pentagon reporter with a major TV network told me on condition of anonymity. But his editors just aren’t interested in such things. "They’re much more interested in stories saying ’Mounting Evidence Indicates Pentagon Not Forthcoming’ or in vets saying the Pentagon has something to cover up." The other problem, he says, is that "our editors are bamboozled by The New York Times." The Times’s problematic role in covering GWS isn’t hard to document.

Despite its numerous front-page stories telling readers that GWS is real, it buried the October IOM report on page A17 under a misleading headline: "Poor Records Hampered Inquiry on Gulf War Ills, Panel Says." The IOM did say that, but it was a minor point, making up just four paragraphs of the 65-paragraph executive summary.

As to the IOM’s conclusion that there is no real GWS, the Times gave that one cryptic paragraph: "The committee said ample evidence showed that some veterans were genuinely sick with a variety of symptoms, most notably fatigue, headache, skin conditions, muscle and joint pain, and loss of memory or attention problems. But, it said, all these abnormalities were probably not caused by a single event."

That’s it. Readers could conclude that GWS resulted from multiple chemical attacks, or a combination of such attacks and drugs. In fact, a Times reader could conclude anything or nothing about what the IOM had really said.

Medicine and ’Miracles’

Journalists aren’t the only ones feeding the vets good stories that don’t quite add up. Dr. Howard Urnovitz is one doctor beloved by vets who believe they have GWS. Last year he said his discovery of a mystery virus in Persian Gulf vets explains how, "Like rubella, it is being passed on as a virus and can, we believe, explain the birth defects in children of the veterans."

Urnovitz is not, however, a disinterested scientist. Although he may believe what he’s saying, he also appears to be appealing to the vets’ fears to raise money for his biotech company, Calypte Biomedical of Berkeley, California. After all, as Calypte’s Web page (ChronicIllnet) informs readers, "ChronicIllnet feels that much of the current breakthroughs in understanding IMMUNE SYSTEM IMBALANCE SYNDROMES, such as cancer, will come from the MIRACLES occurring with the new treatments being explored in Persian Gulf War related illnesses." (Emphasis theirs.)

No responsible physician would use the term miracle to describe his treatments; that’s huckster terminology. As it happens, miracle is a hypertext link. If you click on it, the link takes you to a story about a Gulf vet who claims that his GWS symptoms were cured by doxycycline.

Somehow a general-purpose antibiotic developed in 1966 doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that will lead to a cure for cancer. But it’s not just cancer that these "miracle" cures will finish off. "If we can find a cure for Gulf War Syndrome," Urnovitz said at a 1996 symposium in Denver, "we’ll be able to cure cancer and AIDS and chronic fatigue syndrome and other immune system disorders. They’re all linked together." Maybe that cure will start your car on a cold winter morning, too.

Another doctor who is revered by sick Persian Gulf vets and has testified before the Presidential Advisory Committee is Garth Nicolson. Nicolson is a highly regarded cancer researcher who says he and his wife Nancy, a molecular biophysicist, left the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to pursue a cure for GWS after his stepdaughter, a Gulf War vet, fell ill.

Like Urnovitz, the Nicolsons claim great success with doxycycline. Unlike Urnovitz, the Nicolsons blame not a virus but a bacterium, specifically mycoplasma fermentans (MF). They claim that using a special form of the polymerase chain-reaction (PCR) test, they have detected MF in about half of the vets with GWS symptoms.

With PCR you take some blood from a person and use a chemical procedure to enlarge parts of the DNA of an organism (such as MF)that you think might be in the blood. If you use the chemical that would enlarge the DNA of MF and it works, then you know the MF is there. If the chemical doesn’t enlarge it, you don’t have MF. So far, so good.

But the same sensitivity that makes PCR a useful tool in finding what’s in blood also makes it liable to find what’s not there. Improperly cleaned and sterilized equipment will have all sorts of DNA strands on it that didn’t come from the blood of the specified patient.

In the most famous case of PCR contamination, Dr. David Ho — recently named Time’s "Man of the Year" for his promising work on AIDS — published a study in the mid-’80s which, using PCR, detected the AIDS virus in numerous people who had tested negative in the standard blood test. It was a frightening result, but no one could duplicate his findings and Ho was forced to admit that his testing must have suffered contamination.

As with Ho’s results, other doctors are finding they cannot duplicate Nicolson’s PCR work on MF. This includes the man universally acknowledged as the leading expert on MF, Dr. Shyh-Ching Lo of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. "We’ve never found one" Persian Gulf vet with the bacterium, says Lo. "The Nicolsons claim their technique is different," allegedly using "a special form of PCR that’s more sensitive," says Lo. Specifically, they claim their test can better find MF when it’s hiding in the nucleus of the cell only. Lo says that’s possible, "but we never truly get the detail of how [the Nicolsons] process PCR. They just give us the statements of their results." In late December, Garth Nicolson announced that he will divulge his testing technique, but he had not done so at this writing.

I asked Nicolson if there were any scientists who had duplicated his work. He named only one, Aristo Vojdani, himself a GWS advocate and doctor who specializes in multiple chemical sensitivity. MCS is an alleged ailment that mainstream organizations, such as the American Medical Association, find questionable, if not outright nonsense. (See "Sick of It All," June 1996.) Vojdani is also now among the shrinking number of researchers claiming that silicone breast implants are harmful.

The other way of judging the merit of the Nicolsons’ PCR work would be to see where it has been published. One National Institutes of Health MF expert, who asked not to be identified, conceded that Nicolson had indeed published in this area, but only in "garbage journals." Indeed, of the seven pieces Nicolson sent me, six were in journals that specialize in MCS or related fields. The seventh was in The Journal of the American Medical Association — but it was only an unrefereed letter to the editor.

None of which conclusively proves that the Nicolsons’ research is invalid. But even if their unique test does detect MF, it may have no connection to Gulf War Syndrome. For one, nobody knows how many perfectly healthy people carry around MF in their bodies, just as we carry around myriad types of benign and even helpful bacteria.

More important, medical science so far has identified MF as a probable cause of just one health problem, rheumatoid arthritis. There is also some evidence it may be involved in acute respiratory problems. Sure, some Gulf vets have complained of aching joints and others of breathing troubles. But what of the 100-plus other problems they claim?

Further, the very idea of MF as a biological weapon, as the Nicolsons claim it was, is ludicrous. The purpose of biological weapons is to cripple, kill, and terrorize on the battlefield — not to cause aching joints in vets years later. Nor does it help the Nicolsons’ credibility that they suggest they are targets of a conspiracy because their work threatens the GWS coverup. Garth told the Houston Press, an alternative weekly, that while he and his wife were at M.D. Anderson, their faxes and letters were repeatedly intercepted, and their phone had been tapped so many times that "it was a record."

Nancy also claims there have been six attempts on her life, but "assassins told her they saw her face and just couldn’t pull the trigger."

I asked Garth about this. "We had an armed agent who came into the hospital and opened an aluminum briefcase with a silenced Beretta [sub-machine gun] who identified himself as a defense intelligence agent and said to stop our work," he told me. Were there witnesses? He said yes but wouldn’t supply their names. "Frankly, I don’t want to discuss this because it detracts from what we’re talking about," he said.

That’s a matter of opinion. What’s sad is that the vets are buying into such conspiracy theories. One of those vets is the 37th’s Dan Topalski, who was told by Nicolson’s lab that he and his wife were positive for MF. Topalski is terrified for himself and his spouse, and the other 37th vets are terrified for him.

I called Topalski and told him that the nation’s most eminent MF researcher, Dr. Shyh-Ching Lo, said he didn’t think much of Nicolson’s work. But Topalski told me that Lo was one of the government conspirators. "He was employed by Tanox Biosystems of Houston as their resident medical expert," he told me, "where he developed MF for warfare use." His source for this information? "Nancy Nicolson," he replied. "They both worked there in 1988."

Tanox informed me that they had never heard of either Lo or Nicolson. They claim their only research is in developing allergy treatments, and indeed they hold patents in this area. Nancy Nicolson, according to The Mail on Sunday, the British newspaper that interviewed her, also likes to talk about how Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip visited her, how the pope gave her a gold ring, and how her family has enough money to bring down the American economy.

The Mystery Solved

Of the many reasons the media perpetuate Gulf Lore Syndrome, one is that reporters — and readers — love a mystery. Indeed, a Nexis search in November found 630 stories referring to the "mystery" of GWS. The allure of a mystery is often such that it refuses to die no matter how much light is shone on it. So it is with GWS. But there is no mystery.

Why are there so many sick Persian Gulf vets? First, because there are so many Persian Gulf vets, period. Take 697,000 vets, add their spouses and children, and you have a pool of well over a million people. In such a pool you’re going to have every illness in the book. Because modern medicine is not an exact science, you’re also going to have a certain number of illnesses for which no firm cause is identified.

"Among approximately 697,000 people over a period of several years, there will be poorly understood ailments and a number of obscure diseases," as the October IOM report put it.

The question is, Are Gulf War vets having these illnesses at an extraordinary rate? The flat answer is: no — no more deaths (except vehicle accidents), no more cancers, no more birth defects, no more miscarriages.

Persian Gulf vets have these problems because everybody has these problems. The difference is the media have convinced them that a neighbor’s miscarriage is just a miscarriage, but their miscarriage is GWS.

Indeed, for all the talk of the "commonality" of symptoms of GWS, I have compiled a list of over 100, including hair loss, graying hair, weight gain, weight loss, irritability, heartburn, rashes, sore throat, kidney stones, sore gums, constipation, sneezing, leg cramps, insomnia, herpes, and "a foot fungus that will not go away." It is no exaggeration to say that every ailment any Persian Gulf vet has ever gotten — or that anybody has ever gotten — has been labeled a symptom of GWS.

According to Dr. Edward Young, former chief of staff at the Houston VA Medical Center, one of the three centers set up to investigate ailments among Gulf War vets, "We’re talking about people who have multiple complaints. And if you go out on the street in any city in this country, you’ll find people who have exactly the same things, and they’ve never been to the Gulf."

In an interview with the Birmingham Daily News, he said, "It really rankles me when people stand up and call it ’Persian Gulf Syndrome.’ To honor this thing with some name is ridiculous." Although Young later asked that the comments not be printed, the American Legion, the most powerful GWS lobbying group, got hold of them and complained to the VA. The VA unceremoniously yanked Young from his position, later citing his lack of compassion.

As Shays staffer Robert Newman told me, "Nobody wants to go against vets; it’s a very strong lobby."

Amen.

Yet it’s an oversimplification to say that vets are having exactly the same symptoms as anybody else. They appear to suffer more from illnesses commonly associated with stress — that is, psychosomatic ones.

Doctors have long understood that one can induce symptoms in many people by giving them reasons they should feel sick. David Murray, now with the Statistical Assessment Service in Washington, D.C., used to demonstrate this by telling his social anthropology students they might have suffered minor food poisoning at lunch and that, if so, they should go to the nurse’s office.

"Within five minutes there would be shifting of seats and belching and one or two people would walk out the door," says Murray. "Eventually a third of the class would have left or be complaining of illness."

Nothing enrages activists — or many sick vets — like suggesting that Gulf War vets are suffering psychosomatic illness. Responding to the Presidential Advisory Commission’s conclusion, Denise Nichols told The New York Times, "I am appalled that after five years [the government] is still busy denying physical damage...this is not stress."

But "psychosomatic" does not refers to the symptom; it refers to its origin. You can get diarrhea because you’re worried about tomorrow’s final exam or because you ate a week-old taco. In the first case it is psychosomatic; in the second it is organic, meaning it came from some source other than stress. In either case, you’re sick.

Telling someone their symptoms are probably psychosomatic isn’t an insult; it’s just an explanation. Nor is there anything exotic about it; stress-induced symptoms — often more severe than organic ones — have been experienced by nearly everyone.

What is the source of this GWS stress? That has been muddled by the misapplication of the term, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), coined to explain psychological (including psychosomatic) problems of Vietnam vets who had trouble adjusting to civilian life. Nightline, in October, said GWS couldn’t possibly be PTSD because this wouldn’t explain why vets’ wives were sick.

Exactly right. What the vets and their wives are suffering is what I call current traumatic stress disorder. It isn’t their experience in the Gulf that is haunting them, but rather what they’re seeing on Nightline and other TV shows, what they’re reading in the papers, what they’re hearing from congressional demagogues and from activists, and finally what they hear from their fellow vets in conversations and Internet chatter. The Gulf War vets are sick for the same reason Murray’s students became sick. They are bombarded with the message that they ought to be sick.

Epidemic Hysteria

Medical historian Edward Shorter of the University of Toronto calls related cases of psychosomatic illness "epidemic hysteria." As a historian, he finds the GWS phenomenon tragic yet "fascinating." Says Shorter, "Just as cholera is spread by water droplets, epidemic hysteria is spread by the media."

In his 1992 book on epidemic hysteria, From Paralysis to Fatigue, Shorter recounts the similar history of a 19th-century syndrome called "spinal irritation," originally diagnosed by a handful of British doctors.

Once informed they had this mysterious ailment, the patients, usually young women, would present an often bizarre array of symptoms, including temporary blindness, paralysis (of the sort Brian Martin appears to suffer), constant vomiting, dribbling saliva, and painful menstruation. Doctors used a wide array of treatments, including leeching, putting caustic agents on the skin, and applying magnets. "The more convincing and resolute the treatment," wrote Shorter, "the greater the success in cases of psychosomatic illness."

"Spinal irritation" eventually spread to the United States, where it continued to afflict Americans for decades. In November, the CDC announced that a study to be published in 1997 showed that Gulf vets from a Pennsylvania National Guard unit were three times more likely than comparable troops who didn’t deploy to the Gulf to complain of such symptoms as chronic diarrhea, joint pain, skin rashes, fatigue, and memory loss.

"This is absolutely a breakthrough study," said Matt Puglisi, an official with the American Legion. "For those who were more skeptical" than the Legion, he said, "and wanted scientific proof, now we’ve got it." The New York Times’s Shenon also played the story this way, in several articles with titles like, "The Numbers Support Gulf War Syndrome Claims." But this was far from the smoking gun GWS activists were hoping for and claimed to have found.

All of these are classic psychosomatic symptoms. Combined with studies showing the Gulf vets have no higher rates of things not generally related to psychosomatic illness, such as cancer and death, the symptoms are actually further evidence that GWS reflects epidemic hysteria. Lost in the fuss over the CDC study was the statement from one of the authors to the Associated Press that "we have found there is nothing unique to the Persian Gulf, other than having gone there."

The GWS epidemic appears to have begun in mid-1992 as true PTSD among reservists who had such complaints as "hair loss, joint aches, severe bad breath, and fatigue." As reservists they were not as psychologically prepared to fight as were the active-duty soldiers; moreover, the reservists had to return to civilian jobs almost as if nothing had happened.

At that point USA Today — the same newspaper that launched what proved to be the phony black church-burning epidemic of 1996 — went into action, dubbing the symptoms "Gulf War Syndrome" and broadcasting them throughout the country.

A study of reservists found no extraordinary health problems, just illnesses attributed to stress. But Gulf Lore Syndrome was up and running. That’s when the active-duty soldiers began to fall ill. By late 1993, CNN and others were seizing upon the alleged Mississippi birth defect cluster to say that GWS could be inherited. Gulf Lore Syndrome now included children.

By early 1994 some vets were linking their spouses’ illnesses — including such things as irregular menstruation — to GWS. The media ran headlines like, "Gulf War Syndrome Spreading to Veterans’ Families," and suddenly complaints about GWS symptoms began increasing among vets’ wives.

By late 1996 GWS had reached a point where people were contracting it from objects that had been in the Gulf. Nightline said Brian Martin’s daughter got it from his military gear. CNN did a spot in November about a woman who contracted it from an Army surplus duffel bag.

For a year and a half, GWS remained strictly an American problem. By December 1993, however, The Guardian was reporting British cases. Eventually, GWS crossed to the continent. In a February 1996 article, Hanchette and Brewer began, "As recently as 15 months ago, asking the military about [GWS] often triggered this response: If there really is a sickness emanating from that war, why are our allies free of all symptoms?"

To which the Gannett reporters responded: "Not any more." Well, here’s a question for Hanchette and Brewer. Pick your favorite cause of GWS — chemical weapons, Scud fuel, sand flies, MCS — and explain why it would affect Americans three years before hitting soldiers in other countries.

"It’s absolutely unmistakable" that "the symptoms are thoroughly psychosomatic," Shorter says. "The syndrome has no scientific status. It’s entirely driven by political needs and the media’s needs for sensationalism."

That’s not entirely fair. Reporters like John Hanchette and Ed Bradley have probably convinced themselves they’re doing vets a favor. They’re not. Nor are the demagogic congressmen or the angry activists. You don’t do people a favor by terrorizing them over their own health and that of their spouses and children. You don’t do people a favor by replacing science with nonsense and reality with rumors.

It’s been almost six years since the men and women who served us honorably in the Gulf War survived assault. They’re still under assault, only now their enemy is more insidious, and, judging from the fear I saw in them, more successful.


Read an editorial based on this article.
Read letters based on this article.
Read Michael Fumento’s additional writing on Gulf War Syndrome.