Gulf War Syndrome: Fact vs. Fiction

January 01, 1996  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Gulf

It is time to put to rest the myth of Gulf War Syndrome (GWS), another meaningless collection of illnesses attributed to serving in the Gulf War. This editorial is based upon the excellent article on GWS found in the March 1997 issue of Reason magazine.

It is important to first consider the evidence to date and why the media in America has been so biased in its reporting of this "syndrome." The broadcast and news media (notably USA Today, the New York Times, and ABC's Nightline) constantly publish a barrage of pro-Gulf War Syndrome stories, peppered by individual accounts of soldiers who were there and now claim to have "it."

Naturally, like multiple chemical sensitivity disorder, there are over 100 symptoms of GWS, ranging from hair loss, graying hair, weight gain, weight loss, irritability, heartburn, rashes, sore throat, sore gums, constipation, insomnia, and a foot fungus, among others. The people claim to have GWS are not doctors, not medical experts, and not scientists. Yet the media consistently push their side of the story, only mentioning the scientific studies which have examined their claims as an afterthought.

A popularly quoted soldier, Pfc. Brian Martin, claims, for instance, that he "would vomit Chemlite-looking fluids every time I ran [in prescribed physical therapy]; 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" (transcript from a Congressional panel headed by Rep. Chris Shays, on September 19, 1996).

Chemlite refers to a glowing tube, so Martin is claiming his vomit glowed. Would any respectable medical doctor continue to prescribe physical therapy for a patient who was vomiting every morning in fluorescent colors? Sounds unlikely. Yet this is the most widely-quoted soldier in stories on GWS. Hasn't any reporter thought to question the reliability of some of this information?

Taking away the handful of case-study testimonies given before Congress, we're left with a half-dozen or so controlled, scientific studies to examine. The New England Journal of Medicine reported in its November, 1996 issue that cancer rates among Persian Gulf veterans is slightly below that of comparable vets who didn't deploy to the Gulf. In the same issue, it was reported that hospitalization rates for Gulf War vets are the same as non-Gulf War vets.

The final report from the Institute of Medicine, released in October, 1996, concluded that there was no "scientific evidence to date demonstrating adverse health consequences linked with [Gulf War] service." The Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illness draft of the final report, leaked in November, 1996, 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.'"

These studies are only the most recent which have been published which show no discernable link between serving in the Persian Gulf war and any higher incidence of disease or illness.

What about the recent accounts of nearly 15,000 troops possibly being exposed to sarin nerve gas after a repository was destroyed in the war? No soldier in the 37th Engineer Battalion (which was responsible for blowing up those bunkers) reported any acute symptoms of nerve gas poisoning at the time. Could slight exposure (since nobody complained of any problems after the explosion) to a known and well-understood nerve gas now be responsible for the wide-spread harm and mayhem related to GWS? Unlikely.

The Institute of Medicine concluded in an October 1996 report that "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." Did we ever see this as a headline in a newspaper or the lead story on the evening news?

No, it is far more interesting (and therefore, newsworthy) to claim something is causing harm than to claim there is no basis for the harm. For instance, the news media are much more likely to report on so-called Internet Addiction Disorder (despite no scientific evidence that it exists) than on the self-help support groups which quietly save hundreds of lives each year online. This is an ongoing and troubling bias in the media. By focusing on the negative (look at all the attention given to the verdict in a civil trial of a private individual), regardless of whether people care or not, the media often tries to make the news rather than report on it.

So what's causing all the symptoms complained about by these veterans? What is this if it isn't Gulf War Syndrome? The alternative to GWS is often misunderstood and stigmatized, hence the reason it is rarely mentioned.

Individuals who suffer from these very real physical symptoms are looking to an external, rather than internal cause. As the Reason article noted, you "can get diarrhea because you're worried about tomorrow's final exam or because you ate a week-old taco." The first cause is related to stress and internal thoughts; the latter is related to an organic mechanism. Dozens of research studies in psychology over the past few decades have illustrated the link between one's thoughts and one's physical state or well-being.

There are a lot of theories, in fact, about how physical ailments may be caused simply by our thoughts and feelings about ourselves. This is not to say that we intentionally look to create these problems within ourselves, or that the problem is "all in our heads." On the contrary, the problems and symptoms are just as real as the thoughts are and need treatment.

After the debate has been left behind, we are still left with the problem of vets having physical symptoms. Instead of focusing attention on what causes these problems, however, the solution lies in proper care and treatment of these problems. Treatment should likely include a psychological component, given what we know about the possible medical causes to date.

The important facet of all of this to realize is that there is a psychological component to this problem. It may be that some of these problems are psychosomatic in cause, or a social hysteria which some of the vets have come to firmly believe in and identify. In fact, a handful of vets have built their post-war lives around their disorders. Anything which becomes an integral and important part of one's life is not easily given up, no matter what is discovered about GWS in the future.

GWS likely does not exist, nor has it ever. Scientific research to date illustrates this more clearly than any testimonial given before Congress. This fact needs to be realized and the myth discarded before any long-term healing may begin.