Get Evaluated, Says Gulf War Illnesses Chief
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 23, 2001 A retired Army general who wrote the official history of the Gulf War tells service members and veterans who think they may have symptoms of Gulf War Illnesses to seek medical help.
Lt. Gen. Dale A. Vesser, appointed in January as the Acting Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Gulf War Illnesses, said the Aug. 2, 1990-Feb. 28, 1991 Gulf War was “a great victory” for United States and coalition military forces.
However, Vesser added, DoD remains very concerned that some active duty, reserve component and former service members believe they’ve become ill because of their service in the war. Those service members and veterans should contact DoD- or VA-sponsored outreach programs immediately, he said.
Vesser heads the office with one of the longest acronyms in the military -- the Office of the Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Gulf War Illnesses, Medical Readiness, and Military Deployments.
“We missed the main story of the Gulf War, that I’ve subsequently come to learn, that one in seven veterans who went to the Gulf had symptoms, and they think they got those symptoms in the Gulf,” Vesser said. “You are your own best health advocate. Don’t tough it out if you think you are sick. Go and get evaluated.”
About 697,000 Americans served in Southwest Asia during the Gulf War, according to official statistics. About 120,000 people have been examined for Gulf War Illnesses: 40,000 by the military’s Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program and 80,000 through the Veteran’s Affairs registry.
Ten percent of those examined were deemed healthy while 90 percent were determined to exhibit symptomatic illnesses, according to office documents. Of those with symptoms, 80 percent were medically diagnosed and treated for a specific known illness, while 20 percent remain undiagnosed.
The office notes that the most common symptoms experienced by Gulf War veterans reporting illnesses include tiredness, headaches, joint pains, diarrhea, memory loss, depression, rashes, muscle aches, abdominal pain, hair loss, sleep disturbance and concentration problems.
Then-Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Bernard Rostker remarked on Jan. 12 that there is no “smoking gun” pointing to direct causes of the illnesses and that DoD and other medical experts remain baffled as to the specific reasons why some Gulf War veterans are ill.
Vesser noted that researchers initially thought that smoke from oil well fires started by retreating Iraqi forces might have been responsible for some veterans’ medical problems. However, he said that that theory, and the idea that exposure to depleted uranium munitions have caused the symptoms, have since been discounted.
“The work that has been done now pretty much discounts oil well fires as the major source of the symptoms that Gulf War veterans have,” Vesser said. “Depleted uranium was another ‘cause celebre’ for a brief period of time.”
However, Vesser remarked that although Saddam Hussein didn’t use nuclear, biological, or chemical agents against coalition forces during the war, “it never dawned on us … that we might have done it to ourselves.”
The demolition of captured munitions stocks at Khamisiyah, Iraq on March 11, 1991 by U.S. Army engineers may have exposed some troops in the area to very low levels of the chemical nerve agent Sarin, according to a National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine report. Troops in the Khamisiyah region weren’t exposed to a high enough dose to cause an intense, immediate reaction, the report noted.
The report also noted that evidence is inconclusive as to whether exposure to low levels of Sarin can be tied to long-term health effects, based upon previous studies.
“We’ve identified troops who were exposed, and sent out over 140,000 letters recently, telling them about that potential exposure,” Vesser said. “But, the bottom line still is this isn’t primarily what might have caused problems to their health.”
Vesser said DoD still “has major unanswered questions” about service member use of pesticides and pyridostigmine bromide pills during the Gulf War. Pesticides were used to ward off Southwest Asian bugs and insects which carry infectious diseases, he remarked, while pyridostigmine bromide pills were taken as protection against the nerve agent Soman.
“We know that at least 40,000 American troops may have been overexposed to pesticides,” Vesser said, adding that more than 250,000 American troops took the small, white pyridostigmine bromide pills. Most overexposure to pesticides, he remarked, seems to have occurred not through human use of flea collars, but through overuse of personally applied pesticide and/or pest strips and fly baits used indoors.
“Both of these substances may cause symptoms that are consistent with the symptoms that some Gulf War veterans have,” Vesser said. “A lot of work needs to be done.”
Lessons learned from the Gulf War are being applied within the U.S. military today, Vesser said, citing the specially trained NBC, preventive medicine and environmental hazard detection teams that routinely accompany deployed units.
“Commanders are more sensitive to non-traditional threats to health, the sorts of things we’ve talked about that could have long-term consequences for service members’ health,” he said. “Our commanders are very good at managing risk when they’re figuring out how to accomplish missions. They need to be alert to other things that can have equally serious consequences to service personnel because they were exposed to something.”
Vesser said information sharing up and down the chain of command is also important. During the Gulf War, he said, a third of service members who served on the ground believed they were exposed to a chemical warfare agent.
“Why did they think they were exposed?” Vesser asked. “No one explained to them that a lot of things could set off the M8A1 chemical warfare agent detector – women’s perfume, men’s after shave lotion, exhaust smoke, oil well fire smoke, low batteries, blowing sand, so they heard a lot of false alarms.
“But, you can’t take a chance in that environment: You have to try to protect yourself. People who get in and out of Mission Oriented Protective Posture equipment a lot believe that where there is smoke, there is fire.”
Vesser reiterated that people who suspect they’re ill from their Gulf War service should seek medical help as soon as possible.
“People have to ask themselves how they are feeling and be honest with themselves,” he said. “If they don’t take care of themselves, nobody else will.”