The Reality Of Gulf War Syndrome

Over 200,00 soldiers who served in the first Gulf War in 1991—more than one fourth of total U.S. troops in that conflict—have in the 23 years since reported mysterious symptoms. Called "Gulf War syndrome," their illness has caused gastrointestinal problems, headache, problems with semen, cardiovascular disease, weight loss, joint pain, and fatigue, as well as symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia. These conditions are not necessarily caused by injuries received in combat, but they do appear to be related to service in the Persian Gulf region in that war.

For a long time, the syndrome was thought to be psychosomatic, a reaction to the stresses of war and to difficulties reintegrating into civilian life. However, veterans had felt this notion was being used to dismiss their experiences and silence them. While there is almost certainly a psychosomatic component to some cases, most veterans claiming Gulf War syndrome medical evidence on their side. While the Veterans Administration recognized the condition, if not the name, in 2008, but only recently have scientists found a specific sign of illness connected to at least some of the complaints.

In 2013, a study found indicators of an actual medical basis for symptoms of Gulf War illness; a functional MRI scan showed distinct differences between the neurological function of veterans with symptoms and people who had not served, indicating there was more going on than problems re-adapting to civilian life. A more recent study, this past spring, showed impairments in mitochondrial function. Researchers found that Gulf War veterans complaining of what the Veterans Administration termed "medically unexplained illnesses" have poor functioning in their mitochondria, the power plats of the cells. The symptoms of Gulf War syndrome are similar to those of other mitochondrial illnesses such as Leigh syndrome.

The exact cause of this damage is elusive, and the search for the answer is not unimpeded by national security concerns and military bureaucracy. However, studies have found that chemical exposure is the likely culprit. Signs point to pesticide exposure during the conflict as a likely contributing factor. Nerve gas and other forms of chemical warfare used by Iraqi forces may also be to blame.

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