Gulf War Syndrome: Things Are Not Always As They Seem DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Lovelady, U.S. Air Force

Gulf War Syndrome: Things Are Not Always As They Seem

Concerns about the impact of tours of duty in the Gulf Wars are not new. Several years ago, “Gulf War Syndrome” or Gulf War Illness" made headlines as returning soldiers and veterans experienced a host of very real symptoms of illness.

Many veterans returning from the Gulf War complained of symtoms that mimicked in some cases those of chronic fatigue syndrome. Researchers began to ask: were these symptoms related to exposures experienced during their deployment? Much like the respiratory ailments and other illnesses found in veterans and active duty soldiers deployed more recently, doctors have been at a loss to link the symptoms to a specific cause.

“A Study of Gulf War Veterans with a Possible Deployment-Related Syndrome,” was published in the Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health in 2006. Led by Paul H. Levine, M.D., with co-authors Perry K. Richardson, M.D.; Ladan Zoifaghari, M.D.; Sean D. Cleary, PhD; Craig E. Geist, M.D., Samuel Potolicchio, M.D.; Heather A. Young, PhD; Samuel J. Simmens, PhD; David Schessel, M.D.; Kenneth Williams, M.D.; Clare M. Mahan, PhD; and Han K. Kang, DrPH, the study examined the symptoms experienced by returning Gulf War soldiers and veterans.

The study from Levine, an adjunct professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and clinical professor of Medicine at the George Washington Medical Center, and his colleagues followed a previous, symptom-based survey of veterans of the1990-1991 Persian Gulf War that suggested a neurological syndrome (blurred vision. loss of balance/dizziness, tremors/shaking and and speech difficulty) that was related to deployment. Levine and his colleagues conducted their study to determine whether specific findings could indicate an organic basis for the possible syndrome. They completed an extensive clinical and laboratory evaluation of Gulf War veterans experiencing all four symptoms, using three comparison groups, including one group that had not been deployed.

What the researchers found surprised them: A single, clinically based neurological syndrome could not be identified. No deployment-related exposure appeared to explain the pattern of symptoms, but the evaluation suggested co-morbidities and possibly multiple vaccines as important contributors.

“I’m still in touch with one veteran who was not deployed but who had received multiple vaccines and he’s a classic example of the signs and symptoms of the soldiers who were deployed,” said Levine.

He admitted the study findings were “not what I expected. We couldn’t confirm occupational exposure to anything.”

He said the laboratory results, presented at the September 2004 International Conference on Military Medicine (ICMM), also support similarities in the symptoms of the non-deployed and the symptomatic deployed.

March 31, 2010

On March 31, 2010, then-Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki announced promising news for veterans of the Persian Gulf War who were experiencing the broad range of symptoms referred to as Gulf War Illnesses.

Acting on recommendations from a task force that was asked to identify gaps in service, Shinseki said the  VA plans to reconnect with veterans who deployed during the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991 to ensure they get the best information and care possible.

As part of that outreach, VA’s Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses Task Force recommended improved data-sharing with the Defense Department to notify veterans of potential exposures, monitor their long-term health and provide additional follow-up. The task force also recommended that VA strengthen training for clinicians and claims processors so they’re better postured to diagnose, treat and process disability claims related to Gulf War Illnesses, and reenergize its research and medical surveillance efforts.

The recommendations came on the tail of a VA proposal announced the previous month to presume nine specific infectious diseases to be service-connected for anyone who served in Southwest Asia after Aug. 2, 1990, or in Afghanistan after Sept. 18, 2001.

That ruling, once adopted, impacted veterans who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who served in the orginal Persian Gulf War. It relieved those who were suffering from the designated diseases from the burden of proving their ailments are linked to service in the Persian Gulf or Afghanistan to receive VA health care and disability payments.

The nine diseases are: brucellosis, campylobacter jejuni, coxiella burnetii (Q fever), malaria, mycobacterium tuberculosis, nontyphoidal salmonella, shigella, visceral leishmaniasis (kala-azar) and West Nile virus.

One Soldier's Story

The soldier to which Levine referred is Robert Cliburn. Cliburn was in the United States Army Reserve and was activated for Desert Storm in January 1991. Upon activation, Cliburn was given an induction physical and vaccinations. His entire battalion was vaccinated over two days. Members of the battalion who were 11B [Infantry] were called back for a third day of vaccinations.

“The medics told us we had received the entire pre-deployment vaccination regimen required for deployment,” Cliburn told EHS Today. “This series was designed to be given over an eight-month period and we received it in three days. Upon conclusion [of the vaccination process], we were told to turn in our personal shot records. You are required to keep this on your person at all times. We protested but still had to turn them in.”

Cliburn became ill with flu-like symptoms the next morning. Flu-like symptoms are a major factor in Gulf War illness. “I could tell right away something was ‘wrong or different’ about me,” said Cliburn. “I developed a seething anger and as time passed, that only worsened.”

Cliburn had been a federal civil law enforcement officer since 1982. Following the vaccinations, his symptoms became so severe that he was placed on early retirement in May of 1993.

“During this period of time, my unit of 18 or so men had three of us die; two from cancers and one from a heart attack all within two years and all were in their late fifties,” Cliburn remembered.

He started posting on the first GWS [gulf war syndrome] sites and discovered a microbiologist who proposed that squalene, an illegal adjuvant, was found in some veterans' blood systems. Twice when Cliburn opened his GWI files, he said a virus destroyed his files. It happened once again when he opened another file. He feels the destruction of his files by a virus is not an accident.

“There are thousands of veterans who like me, were vaccinated but not deployed and many thousands more who were deployed to the SW Asia area like Navy or Air Force veterans who never actually put their boots inside Iraq but did receive the vaccinations,” Cliburn noted. “For veterans who are in my situation, there is zero chance of any VA compensation. I lost two careers and do not receive a penny for GWI compensation.”

He added that compensation for non-deployed, ill veterans has become an issue with deployed veterans. “I have been insulted and told that ill, non-deployed veterans just want on a gravy train. It has caused problems almost to the point that Desert Storm veterans were being divided over this issue. It is a mute point since the VA will not consider non-deployed Gulf War illness veterans as even being ill.”

Cliburn called the anthrax vaccinations given to the soldiers “illegal” and “inhumane,” adding, “Anthrax attacks the immune system and causes diseases of the auto-immune system. Many researchers theorize that we have a non-contagious form of HIV. Auto-immune disorders also corrupt one's natural immune system causing genetically susceptible illnesses to appear decades early. My grandfather developed prostate cancer in his late eighties. I did apparently in my late thirties and I was Stage IV when diagnosed in 2003.”

Cliburn had two years of estrogen-based chemotherapy and cryogenic surgery in 2005. “I think I was about as close to death as I could get without actually dying,” he said.

These illnesses and the fight to receive compensation have caused many of the veterans Cliburn knows to become depressed to the point of suicide. “I think every veteran of that era knows at least one vet who took his/her own life,” he said. “I lost the best friend of my life that way. The local National Guard unit lost a newly wedded, thirty-something soldier last Christmas [to suicide]. Among the personal effects he had was a VA denial listing stating 'adjustment disorder,' not PTSD, was the cause of his problems and his claim was denied."

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