During August of 1990, the United States and coalition forces from other countries arrived in Kuwait in order to drive the invading Iraq army out. The coalition forces were able to win the war with a low casualty rate, but returned home with mysterious symptoms (Pascual, 2016). A wide range of chronic and acute issues have been linked to the mysterious symptoms. One fourth of these veterans have memory problems, chronic headaches, pain, gastrointestinal issues, and other chronic abnormalities that are not explained (Hall, 2009). The unexplained issues have been referred to as the Gulf War Syndrome. Other names for the disease include the Desert Storm Diseases and the Gulf War Illness (“Gulf war syndrome,” 2016). The purpose of this paper is to discuss the cause and effects of the Gulf War Syndrome.
Gulf War Syndrome has multiple symptoms that are not defined by most medical or psychiatric diagnoses. Combat or other stressors have been ruled out as a cause as Gulf War veterans have lower rates of posttraumatic stress disorder than other war veterans (Hall, 2009).
Soon after the war, many people believed that the disease was caused by chemical warfare nerve agents. Although some investigations revealed that some troops may have been exposed to minute levels of cyclosarin and sarin, most expert panels determined that chemical warfare nerve agents were not used during the Gulf War. Examinations of Gulf War veterans do not reveal any neurological damage that would result from a chemical nerve agent (Riddle et al., 2003). Other factors present that could have played a role in this disease include infectious diseases, biological weapons, organophosphate pesticides, chemical pesticides, pyridostigmine bromide, chemical agent resisting coatings, fuel, decontamination solutions, oil well fire smoke, vaccinations, and depleted uranium (“Gulf war syndrome,” 2016). Many of these factors were ruled out after extensive research on Gulf War veterans (Hodges, 2009).

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Symptoms to this disease are widespread with most veterans convinced that they suffer from a unique and new disorder (Kilshaw, 2008). Fatigue, persistent headaches, muscle aches and pains, neurological issues, cognitive dysfunction, mood and sleep disturbances, dermatological issues, respiratory issues, chemical sensitivities, gastrointestinal issues, cardiovascular issues, and menstrual issues are the most common symptoms described by veterans. As many of these symptoms are similar to the ones related to chronic fatigue syndrome, chemical sensitivities, and other environmental illnesses, many researchers have concluded that these diseases share common etiologies and causes (“Gulf war syndrome,” 2016). Some skeptics have pointed out that ill-defined syndromes are reported after most wars from shell shock in World War II to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Research in 1998 revealed that Gulf War veterans were actually healthier than veterans who were not deployed. Other research has found no cluster of symptoms that are unique to Gulf War veterans (Hall, 2009). However, in 2008 Gulf War Syndrome was officially recognized as a distinct illness and not a psychosomatic condition (Hodges, 2009).

Research completed in 2008 and early 2009 narrowed the causes of the Gulf War Syndrome to three factors: chemical nerve agents, pesticides, and pyridistigime bromide pills. The three factors that veterans were exposed to belong to a class of chemicals known as acetylolinesterase inhibitors. These three factors combined with vaccines given to the Gulf War military members are a possible cause of Gulf War Syndrome (Hodges, 2009). These exposures have led to damaged nervous and immune systems. Research has shown that there is often reduced white and gray matter in the brains of the Gulf War veterans (Pasqual, 2016). Another researcher and medical doctor has concluded that the problem could be in the mitochondria of a veteran’s cells. Mitochondria is how the body produces energy. Someone with mitochondria dysfunction fatigues easily, has trouble exercising, has cognitive issues, and has gastrointestinal problems. These symptoms closely relate to those of Gulf War Syndrome (Verger, 2014).

For years Gulf War veterans have struggled with their health problems. For over ten years research on Gulf War Syndrome has focused on biologic and not psychosomatic issues. Currently the treatment of Gulf War Syndrome has been mainly symptomatic. Many drugs are available for symptomatic relief. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has had some success in helping restore normalcy to the Gulf War veterans who were affected. Intranasal insulin has been effective in reducing inflammation. Exercise and nighttime positive pressure breathing has been effective as well (Pasqual 2016).

In conclusion, over one-fourth of the veterans of the 1990-1991 Gulf War have been diagnosed with Gulf War Syndrome. In the late 1990s some skeptics argued that the issue was no different than other syndromes reported after other wars. In 2008, the Gulf war Syndrome was recognized as a distinct illness and not a psychosomatic condition. The symptoms were closely related to chronic fatigue syndrome, chemical sensitivities, and other environmental illnesses. It fundamentally differs from stress-related and trauma syndromes. Many factors such as agent resisting coatings, fuel, decontamination solutions, oil well fire smoke, and depleted uranium have been ruled out as the causes of Gulf War Syndrome. Evidence strongly indicates that Gulf War Syndrome is a result of a combination of chemical nerve agents, pesticides, and pyridistigime bromide pills along with mitochondria dysfunction. Although more study is needed, cognitive-behavioral therapy, intranasal insulin, exercise, and nighttime pressure breathing has been effective in treating Gulf War Syndrome.

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  • Hall, H. (2009). Gulf war syndrome or gulf lore mythology. Skeptic: Altadenia, 14(4). 26-29, 80.
  • Hodges, K. (2009). Researchers narrow gulf war syndrome causes. U. S. Army Website. Retrieved from: https://www.army.mil/article/21654/Researchers_narrow_Gulf_War_Syndrome_causes
  • Kilshaw, S. (2008). Gulf war syndrome: A reaction to psychiatry’s invasion of the military? Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 32(2), 219-37. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11013-008-9088-0
  • Pascual, K. (2016). Gulf war mystery solved? Scientists believe exposure to toxins caused veteran illness. Tech Times. Retrieved from http://www.techtimes.com/articles/128165/20160127/gulf-war-syndrome-mystery-solved-scientists-believe-exposure-to-toxins-caused-veteran-illnesses.htm
  • Riddle, J. R., Brown, M., Smith, T., Elspeth, C. R., & al, e. (2003). Chemical warfare and the gulf war: A review of the impact on gulf veterans’ health. Military Medicine, 168(8), 606-13.
  • Verger, R. (2014). For soldiers with gulf war illness, A clue to the mystery in their cells. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/sick-soliders-gulf-war-illness-clue-mystery-their-cells-238850