A researcher at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center is proposing a new diagnostic label for soldiers who returned from recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan with the same mysterious symptoms as soldiers who fought in the Gulf War two decades earlier.
Gulf War Illness is a catchall term for soldiers who returned from the 1990 Middle East conflict with combinations of symptoms such as joint pain, fatigue, stomach illness and cognitive problems. But it can be confusing when applied to soldiers who fought in the same region after 9/11 because they weren’t necessarily exposed to the same risk factors, said Ron Bach, who studies deployment-related illness.
Instead, he and VA colleagues propose the term Burn Pit Syndrome for soldiers who returned from Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom — even though the syndrome could be biologically similar or identical to GWI.
“It may not stick,’’ Bach said. “People may dismiss it, but it’s a way of describing what we think is a new group.
“Are they the same thing?” he said of Gulf War and Burn Pit syndromes. “That’s the $64,000 question right now. That’s the next big study that we’re doing.”
The cause of Gulf War Illness has been examined, with culprits ranging from fumes from oil fires and exploded ordinance, to nerve gas, to anti-nerve agent pills, to anthrax vaccines. Bach suspects that the syndrome is due to an overreaction by the immune system to multiple exposures. That could explain why symptoms have emerged in soldiers who took nerve agent pills and those who didn’t, for example.
His research has found unique markers in the blood of veterans with Gulf War Illness, and tested steroid treatments to reduce their symptoms. Next he wants to test OEF/OIF veterans to see whether they have the same blood markers.
The new label references burn pits used in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of metal, rubber and other trash, but Bach stressed that the pits were only one potential cause of toxic exposure. Isolating the cause might not be as important as proving the immune system’s broader role, he said.
“The burn pit (label) is to put it in association with OEF/OIF and what we know was a major source of toxic exposure in that group,” he said, “but I don’t want to get into the weeds and get focused on what is the cause. … That’s not really the issue.”