Just shy of 700,000 American soldiers saw combat in the Gulf War in 1991. Now more than a third of them seem to suffer an unusual, multisymptom illness that has been called “Gulf War syndrome.” However, even after over 20 years, no explanation of what the disease is or what causes it has been widely accepted, and there remain some doctors and officials who think the diagnosis is erroneously applied to people with different, unrelated ailments, or that the condition is in large part psychosomatic.
Part of the reason for the controversy is that there are a number of different symptoms that veterans report experiencing. The most commonly reported symptoms were tumors and memory problems, followed by fatigue, muscle pain, and headaches. Of these, memory problems and fatigue have a subjective component, and fatigue and headache occur as symptoms of a number of conditions, and occasionally with no apparent underlying illness. This was a factor in the initial and lingering skepticism about the condition.
However, there is now a strong consensus that the symptoms reflect an actual, existing condition and a serious health problem for veterans, though the Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t use the term. Since the symptoms vary too widely to meet the medical definition of a syndrome, the VA uses the term “medically unexplained chronic multisymptom illnesses.” This includes chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and a number of gastrointestinal disorders, contracted by Gulf War veterans.
The cause of these symptoms is not precisely known. The government created a panel of experts to investigate why Gulf War veterans were getting sick, and the panel determined the most likely primary cause was stress. Veterans themselves, however—along with several members of Congress—believe the ailments can be traced back to chemical exposure, just as exposure to the Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War caused serious illnesses in soldiers who had been in that conflict.
Most likely, it is a combination of factors, the stress of combat weakening the immune system, and soldiers subsequently developing health conditions as a result of exposure to chemicals that don’t ordinarily often cause problems.