Three decades after the first Gulf War, thousands of veterans are still suffering from a series of maladies whose cause has yet to be determined.

In the summer of 1990, Saddam Hussein, having received mixed signals from American diplomats over his issues with Kuwait, invaded the country.

After his capture many years later, Hussein said in interviews that had he known that the U.S. was so vehemently opposed to his invasion he would have never entertained the thought. But invade he did and his forces quickly overran Kuwait.

Soon after, the U.S. began building up a coalition of troops from 35 nations. Desert Shield gave way to Desert Storm. Beginning on January 17, 1991, the U.S.-led coalition commenced a six-week bombing campaign unleashing its tremendous airpower and technological advantage over Iraq. The coalition smashed the Iraqi forces, swept the air force from the skies, pummeled and rendered ineffective Iraq’s air defense artillery, considered by Iraq’s Russian allies as nearly impregnable, and destroyed its command and control facilities.

On February 24, the coalition began a ground campaign that lasted 100 hours. The coalition pushed the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait and into Iraq at which point President George H. W. Bush halted the troops after they had smashed their enemy. 

Iraq had instituted a scorched earth policy setting over 700 of Kuwait’s oil fields on fire and placing landmines around them to slow the quenching of the flames. It was reported that six million barrels of oil were burning daily; the last fire wasn’t put out until November. 

This was considered one of the probable causes of what became known as “Gulf War Syndrome” (GWS) exhibited among troops returning from the Gulf. The common issues found among returning troops have been:

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  • Fatigue
  • Musculoskeletal pain
  • Cognitive problems
  • Skin rashes
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches 
  • Indigestion 
  • Insomnia 
  • Respiratory disorders
  • Birth defects in children born to returning veterans

Of the over 700,000 troops that served in the Gulf, nearly one-third may have suffered or still be suffering from the maladies listed above.

GWS wasn’t limited to coalition forces. In 2004, Iraq recorded the highest mortality rate from leukemia in the world.

Medical research tried but failed to pinpoint the cause of the maladies. The VA published a report which said that veterans experienced environmental and toxic exposures involving smoke, chemicals, and other substances that are known to cause an excess of free radicals in the body’s cells, a scenario known as oxidative stress.

Last month, a study of Gulf War Syndrome concluded that the symptoms associated are not related to exposure to depleted uranium. The study found that the most likely cause of the disease is exposure to Sarin gas.

The VA is studying the long-term consequences of Gulf War Syndrome in relation to aging and neurodegenerative diseases, particularly Parkinson’s Disease.

There is no specific treatment for GWS. However, on behalf of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has released a report recommending that for veterans who are experiencing symptoms related to chronic multisymptom illness (CMI) an integrated, system-wide, long-term management approach should be implemented. Cognitive-behavior therapy should also be included to aid veterans in coping with their illnesses.

Dr. Alpaslan Dedeoglu, of the VA Boston Healthcare System, and his team are conducting a study into whether GWS can be treated with fingolimod, an anti-inflammatory drug used for patients with multiple sclerosis. If this study proves successful, it will provide data for possible clinical trials for treating GWS using an anti-inflammatory strategy.

The VA encouraged Gulf War Veterans to enroll in a national registry to help aid in the research and treatment for all veterans suffering from GWS.

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Veterans of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm are highly encouraged to enroll in two distinct and important VA clinical registries: the Gulf War Registry and the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. All Gulf War Vets are eligible to register in both. The Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry includes an online questionnaire and an optional health exam at a VA medical center. Gulf War Veterans can contact their local environmental health coordinator to schedule an Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry health exam and to enroll in the Gulf War Registry.

The VA has a reference page for all Gulf War veterans where information on testing and treatment can be located. That page can be accessed here: https://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/gulfwar/

This report was originally published on January 19, 2021.