Complaints of memory and concentration problems, headaches, pain and fatigue among Gulf War vets have often fallen on deaf ears – until now. A Department of Veterans Affairs advisory panel has concluded that Gulf War syndrome is a real illness affecting at least 174,000 soldiers, a quarter of those who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict.

“The extensive body of scientific research now available consistently indicates that Gulf War illness is real, that it is the result of neurotoxic exposures during Gulf War deployment, and that few veterans [suffering from it] have recovered or substantially improved with time,” says a report by the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses released yesterday.

Pyridostigmine bromide, a muscle stimulant that the military gave troops to protect them against nerve gas, and fly-killing pesticides sprayed in living and dining quarters – as well as on uniforms and tents – were both associated with the syndrome, the panel said. But it didn’t rule out exposure to nerve agents, smoke from oil-well fires, multiple vaccinations or some combination as other possible causes.  

Gulf War vets also suffer higher rates of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or the degenerative nerve condition Lou Gehrig’s disease, than other vets. And fatal brain cancers are twice as common among troops who were downwind of demolitions of Iraqi munitions near the area of Khamisiyah in the country’s south than other soldiers who served in the war, the report noted.

Previous studies – including one released in 2000 by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) – blamed stress or unknown causes for the symptoms. Those findings were "skewed" and the studies should be redone, said the congressionally mandated panel of scientists and veterans appointed by VA Secretary James Peake.

But Harold Sox, chairman of the 2000 IOM study, denied that research was shoddy and questioned whether the panel's conclusions are correct. "There's something about going to the Gulf and serving in the Gulf that has caused something bad and persistent and real, but we have not found any evidence for a specific cause," Sox told the Los Angeles Times

James Binns, the committee's chairman, disagreed. “Government has been very slow to accept what the research shows," Binns said, according to McClatchy Newspapers. "These problems have for too long been denied or trivialized."

Image of soldier by iStockphoto/Jon Gorr