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Military - Gulf War Syndrome

Author: Edward L Winston
Added: September 24th, 2009

Gulf War Syndrome, also called Gulf War Illness, is a supposèd illness or set of illnesses which effects those who served during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and to a certain extent those who have served in the War in Iraq which started in 2003.

Table of Contents

  1. Symptoms
  2. Potential Culprits
  3. Similar syndromes
  4. Conclusion


The symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) are extremely broad and range from: fatigue, headaches, memory loss, muscle and joint pains, herpes, eczema, diarrhea, constipation, indigestion, and in some less common cases nerve and neurological problems, tumors, and birth defects[1][2]. A static definition for GWS really doesn't exist.

Some even go as far as to say that GWS is sexually transmitted like AIDS[2], but this seems unlikely due to the isolation of suffers of GWS, it has not expanded beyond those in combat - other than examples stated in the sourced book where herpes is a symptom of GWS, and since herpes is a virus, therefore GWS must be. It's important to note that one of the biggest cases in the book where herpes is a part of GWS, the sufferer said "I don't understand all this medical stuff."[9]

Fatigue, headaches, memory loss, muscle and joint pains, and indigestion, trouble going to the bathroom - as in not at all or diarrhea, are problems which are consistent with aging, bad diet, and poor health which is common amongst most middle aged Americans, not just Gulf War Veterans.

Eczema is a disease of the skin and covers a broad range of skin conditions which often reoccur throughout a person's life[3]. In general eczema has been on the rise in the latter half of the 20th century[4] and the disease often peaks during infancy and is more common amongst females[5]. Eczema can pass genetically through parents to their children, but it is not contagious and is similar to a regular allergic reaction and cannot originate from GWS[6].

Herpes seems to be one of the most misunderstood viruses in the world, so much so that many people I've known throughout my life didn't realize it was a virus at all. Some people think it's genetic, some people think it's the same thing as canker sore, and of course neither are true. I actually have a section on myths about herpes, take a look for more information. In short, however, herpes cannot be caused by GWS, because it's a virus and is not the result of chemical or toxic exposure. Read more about herpes in my health section.

So that really leaves the nerve and neurological problems, tumors, and birth defects as health problems that cannot simply be explained as extremely common amongst the population right off the bat, keep these in mind as we discuss further.

Potential Culprits

There are numerous potential sources for the symptoms regarding GWS, and we'll discuss each one and its possibility.

Oil-well Fires
During the Gulf War a lot of oil wells were set on fire by Iraqi troops and exposure to the smoke from the fire therein has potential health risks[7]. Those who did help put out the fires have suffered from lung problems such as bronchitis and asthma. Most interestingly those who did fight the fires, but were not in combat, do not suffer from GWS symptoms[8].
Depleted Uranium
This is by far the most popular theory. I have a whole section on Depleted Uranium, see that for more information. The most common assumption is that "uranium is used in nuclear bombs so therefore depleted uranium is radioactive." While it is radioactive, it's not any more radioactive than your glow in the dark remote control[10]. The real problem originates from the fact that depleted uranium is a poisonous metal, similar to mercury[11]. Just like with mercury or arsenic, long term affects include kidney, liver, heart, and potentially neurological and reproductive damage, though the latter has only been proven in rats conclusively[12][13].
Chemical Weapons
Much of the broad systems of GWS are similar to those caused by mustard gas, organophosphate, pesticides, and nerve gas. Importantly, more than 134,000 combat troops were exposed to these[14] when an Iraqi weapon's depot was bombed in Khamisiya.

Depleted Uranium seems like it could be the culprit, but the chemical weapons exposure is known to have affected a massive amount of troops, and we know that these weapons cause symptoms such as those of GWS and birth defects. Let's look a bit more into it.

Similar syndromes

Similar syndromes to GWS have appeared since the dawn of industrial warfare. After the review of medical records of soldiers who fought in the American Civil War, there was evidence that 5% of each company of soldiers had a 51% increase of cardiac, gastrointestinal, and nerve problems. These are similar as well to the "shell shock" symptoms after the Great War and also post-traumatic stress disorder after the war in Viet Nam[16].


In 2006 a report from the US Institute of Medicine stated that 30% of servicemen and women which served in the Gulf War, about 200,000, have suffered from one or more of the various symptoms of GWS, there is no symptom which is unique to suffers of GWS, thus proving that GWS is not a single illness[17].

The increase in birth defects is also not apparent. That is to say 7.45% of veterans from the Persian Gulf had children with birth defects in contrast with 7.59% of veterans not deployed at all[18] - so there were actually fewer birth defects amongst them[19].

Almost certainly use of depleted uranium as well as exposure to many other chemicals during the Persian Gulf War has caused some health problems in combat veterans, but not much more than the average health problems for middle aged (and older) Americans. 

Gulf War Syndrome has become a catch-all disease amongst veterans from common to very serious illnesses. The simple fact is, GWS as a general syndrome has symptoms far too broad to be a single sickness or disease, and is likely many unrelated illnesses being grouped together because in some cases they seem so much more common in Persian Gulf War combat veterans - but in most cases they aren't.

So, is there something happening within combat veterans from Iraq? Yes, but it's not nearly as common as claimed and the evidence is that many different illnesses have effected vets for many different reasons, rather than some catch all disease. Current numbers put GWS suffers at 30% of all combat veterans, but based on all of the statistics above, I would guess the low to be 2% and the highest to be 10%, with my official opinion being some where in the middle.

I believe that chemical weapons exposure, more than anything else, is likely the cause for the neurological and cancer systems related to suffers of GWS.