Sickness, Injury Took Toll of Gulf Troops
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 23, 2001 Non-battle related injuries and sickness have sapped the strength and resources of armies since groups of cavemen first threw rocks at each other. The 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War was no exception.
Dr. Michael E. Kilpatrick, a former Navy physician who had commanded an Army/Navy infectious disease research unit during the war, noted that ill health, sickness and non- combat related injuries -- including deaths -- visited many of the 700,000 U.S. service members that were deployed to Southwest Asia.
While estimates of massive potential battlefield casualties never materialized, Kilpatrick said thousands of troops fell ill or were injured during their service in the Gulf.
“Some 28,000 people were hospitalized during the Gulf War and less than 1,000 of those were from combat-related injuries,” said Kilpatrick, now retired. He is the chief of staff of the Office of the Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Gulf War Illnesses, Medical Readiness, and Military Deployments.
Kilpatrick said the Gulf War provides many lessons learned for military operations and medical planners, especially in light of the fact that the war’s 145 non-combat related deaths almost equaled the conflict’s 147 combat deaths.
Many of the non-combat related injuries during the Gulf War -- such as sports injuries and automobile accidents -- were preventable, Kilpatrick said. It should come as no surprise that so many people became ill or injured in the Gulf, he said, considering the large number of troops involved, and the quickness in which they were deployed to a foreign environment.
“This was a very rapid call up,” Kilpatrick said. Large numbers of reserve component troops unused to sudden deployments moved quickly to the front, he added. Such haste, he noted, meant some out of shape or sick active duty and reserve component service members were sent to the Gulf.
U.S. Central Command medically evacuated about 8,000 troops from the Gulf during the war, Kilpatrick said. Only about 1,000 of those evacuations were combat-related. About 7,000 people were evacuated for non-combat related maladies such as sports and other injuries, psychological problems, pregnancies and other medical conditions, he added.
In the decade since the war concluded, military officials have taken actions to ensure that service members receive more timely physicals and are medically screened before deployment, Kilpatrick said.
Medical records are absolutely important to service member health care, Kilpatrick said, to include the documentation of vaccine usage. During the Gulf War, he noted that the troop medical history “paper trail” was often disrupted.
“The medical records didn’t go with the people when they deployed. Clearly, there was no way to replicate medical records in theater and so when people were medically evacuated, they left with the original record, particularly those who were hospitalized,” Kilpatrick said.
“Many people thought those records were lost, when in fact they were filed in St. Louis where they archive medical records from hospitals,” he said. “If you didn’t know the name of the tent you were admitted to in the desert, you couldn’t access that record.”
Outpatient medical information filled out in the Gulf was often “put into a box, hopefully to marry up someday with a person’s permanent medical record, and that just never happened,” Kilpatrick said. Military medical authorities look to advances in portable, electronic devices -- so- called “smart-cards” -- to provide answers to the problem of creating easily accessed and updated medical records for deployed troops.
Kilpatrick said the inability to locate and/or access Gulf War military hospitalization records is unpleasant for anyone needing those records for subsequent treatment, especially those service members who believe they have Gulf War Illnesses. Out of about 120,000 current and former service members who have been examined for Gulf War Illnesses, he noted that about 20 percent remain undiagnosed.
“Anybody who has symptoms that can’t be explained has to be worried -- that is human nature,” Kilpatrick said. “If the conditions persist, and they go through many, many examinations and can’t get an answer, many people do become depressed, and that depression or anxiety can actually worsen the symptoms.
“For those individuals, this not having their record is just one more contributor to their saying: ‘The government really didn’t take good care of me.’”
Kilpatrick said modern medicine’s seeming inability to determine why some people suffer from GWI-related symptoms such as headaches, depression, tiredness, rashes, memory loss and other maladies could occur because the profession isn’t all powerful.
“I think medicine is realizing -- and has for years -- that many times people have symptoms that we can’t diagnose,” he said. “Maybe the medical field has oversold itself in its ability. We can tell you when you develop diabetes what that disease is, but really can’t tell you as an individual why you’ve developed diabetes.
“We can tell you what the treatment needs to be, and watching your diet and exercise, but as far as the cause of diabetes in an individual, we can’t do that.”