WASHINGTON — A study of more than 10,000 veterans and family members suffering post-Gulf War medical problems found no evidence of any unique disease or disorder, the Pentagon’s top medical official said Tuesday.
The study turned up instances of back pain, headache, alcoholism, depression and other ailments, but no mystery illness stemming from the desert war.
“We do not find a single or unique illness responsible for a large or even significant proportion … of illness,” said Dr. Stephen Joseph, assistant secretary of defense for health. “Rather, what we find are multiple illnesses with overlapping symptoms and causes.”
The study involved thorough medical examinations of 10,020 veterans and family members who had complained of one or more of a variety of symptoms. Nearly 700,000 service members served in the Gulf War.
While earlier Pentagon examinations of a smaller pool of veterans turned up similar results, Tuesday’s announcement marked the first categorical rejection by the Defense Department of the existence of an unknown malady stemming from the 1990-1991 desert war.
Concern about the existence of a disease arose when hundreds of Gulf War veterans complained about a variety of ailments from fatigue and headaches to muscle and skeletal disorders.
Speculation focused on the possibility that Iraq had, contrary to military reports, unleashed chemical or biological weapons on the allied forces. Another theory was that insecticides or inoculations administered by the military carried unexpected side effects or reacted with one another to create adverse symptoms.
Of those veterans and family members who complained of illness, all but 11 percent were diagnosed with some sort of disease or symptom. And Joseph said it was likely that many of the illnesses, particularly stress-related ailments, stemmed from service in the gulf.
But such ailments would have been expected of any returning group of war veterans. The key conclusion, Joseph said, was that the Defense Department researchers found “not a single mystery illness or unique Gulf War illness but rather a combination of symptoms and illnesses … that you would particularly expect to find in a population that was exposed to the kinds of stresses that people were exposed to in the gulf.”
While Joseph said some of the patients are seriously ill, 81 percent of those participating in the survey had missed no work in the previous three months and only 7 percent had missed a week or more in that period.
The largest single category of ailment was listed as “psychological conditions,” representing 19 percent of those surveyed. A few of the patients are seriously afflicted but most cases are what Joseph described as “garden variety psychological symptoms and conditions that you find in an outpatient department.”
Psychological ailments included tension headaches, stress-related anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Other ailments included joint pain, arthritis, backache, maladies of the respiratory, nervous and digestive systems, skin disease and circulatory problems.
Not all involved in the Gulf War disease issue were ready to accept the Pentagon’s conclusion.
“The majority of this group has acquired chemical allergies and intolerances,” said Richard Haines of Gulf Veterans International, a group based in New Albany, Ind. He said he based his conclusion on “interviewing just hundreds of them.”
The ailments, he said, come from exposure to a variety of toxins in the Persian Gulf including burning oil, an anti-nerve agent pill and pesticides.
Steve Robertson, legislative director of the American Legion and a Gulf War veteran, acknowledged that there may not be a single “silver bullet” ailment besetting those who served in the Gulf War.
“As many doctors as have been involved in this thing, that would have been diagnosed pretty quickly,” Robertson said. “We still have sick soldiers and that’s the problem.”
Robertson suffered from chronic pain in his ankles, knees and shoulders upon his return from the Persian Gulf in 1991 as well as from flulike symptoms such as fatigue and a hacking cough. He criticized the Pentagon for being slow to respond to a problem that veterans groups identified as long ago as 1992. And he said the military needs to develop better countermeasures against chemical and biological weapons, whether or not they were responsible for a Gulf War syndrome.