Federal report confirms 697,000 suffer from Gulf War illness. Swanzey woman sees a faint light at the end of the tunnel
By Casey Farrar
Some days, it takes hours for her painkillers and muscle relaxers to kick in.
Hunt, a retired Air Force veteran who was deployed to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War in 1990, is one of an estimated 697,000 U.S. veterans who suffer from Gulf War illness, according to a recent report from a committee established by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
For Hunt, the report released last month validated years spent in search of a diagnosis for the laundry list of symptoms she endures, including joint pain and stiffness, muscle aches and memory and concentration problems.
“I was happy to see it in black and white,” Hunt said. “It felt like validation.”
According to the report, at least one-quarter of Gulf War veterans suffer from the illness, which has been linked to pyridostigmine bromide pills given to protect troops from nerve agents and pesticides used during their deployment.
There are also ties to exposure to nerve agents, receipt of multiple vaccines and close proximity to oil well fires, but evidence to these links are inconsistent, according to the report.
Hunt, who said she was diagnosed with Gulf War illness by a doctor at the Manchester VA Medical Center in 2002, spent five years undergoing a battery of tests before the illness was confirmed.
“They tested me for rheumatoid arthritis, that came back negative,” she said. “I’ve had X-rays, bone scans and blood tests. It was a long, frustrating process and I started to feel like I was going crazy.”
A controversial diagnosis
The recent report from the congressionally-mandated Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses contradicts a federally-funded study just two years ago that denied the existence of any Gulf War-linked disease.
The 2006 study by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, which was sponsored by the Veterans Administration, showed that while the incidence of illness among Gulf War veterans was higher than those from other wars, they couldn’t be linked to a single disease.
Before making an official response to the most recent study confirming the existence of Gulf War illness, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs James B. Peake has sent it to the Institute of Medicine for review, according to a press release from the government agency.
“I appreciate the committee’s work on this report, and I am eager to see the results of further independent study into their findings,” Peake said in the press release. “Of course, VA will continue to provide the care and benefits our Gulf War veterans have earned through their service, as we have for more than a decade.”
Part of the difficulty in pinpointing an illness has been that veterans report a wide and varying range of symptoms, including muscle and joint pain, memory and concentration problems, chronic headaches, respiratory problems, gastrointestinal problems, chronic fatigue, sleeplessness, hair loss and skin rashes.
Gulf War veterans also face an increased risk for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — a degenerative disease of the nervous system better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease — and have died from brain cancer at elevated rates, according to the most recent report.
The report found that federal Gulf War research programs have not been effective in addressing issues related to Gulf War illness and called for research funding to be increased.
“Adequate funding is required to achieve the critical objectives of improving the health of Gulf War veterans and preventing similar problems in future deployments,” the report summarized. “This is a national obligation, made especially urgent by the many years that Gulf War veterans have waited for answers and assistance.”
Hoping for a cure
Besides feeling validated by the committee’s report, Hunt says it has provided her with hope that she could some day feel better.
For now, Hunt said her symptoms are being managed by pain medications, muscle relaxers and antidepressants. She’s tried several homeopathic remedies, including acupuncture and detoxification, but has found them ineffective or too costly.
Besides living in near constant pain, Hunt said her life has been affected both professionally and personally in a myriad of ways.
In 1995, after 15 years in the Air Force, Hunt retired and moved to Alaska, where she worked as a mail carrier for the U.S. Post Office until, in 1997, she was suddenly struck with mysterious pain.
“I had a walking route,” she said of her job. “Pretty soon it got to be too much for me.”
In 2002, she moved to New Hampshire and now works in real estate at Century 21 in Keene.
The job provides her flexible hours and allows her to make trips at least four times a year to the veteran’s hospital in Manchester.
“I couldn’t keep a 9 to 5 job,” Hunt said. “If I had to be at work by 9, I’d have to get up at 5 a.m. just so that I could take my meds and get my body to calm down in time to start work.”
An avid bowler and gardener before she became sick, Hunt says she has cut back on physical activities and feels angry that, for years, she felt the government was ignoring the problems she and many of her fellow veterans have faced.
“We served our country,” she said. “What was frustrating is that some of the vaccines we were given weren’t recorded in our individual shot records. So we don’t even have completely accurate records of what they gave us.”
Hunt, whose son is stationed with the Army in Italy and returned earlier this year from a 15-month deployment in Afghanistan, says she also worries about whether active military members are still being exposed to toxins that may have made her ill.
“There still needs to be a lot more research,” she said. “And I think it should be a made a priority.”