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Gulf War veterans face lingering health problems that may make them vulnerable to COVID-19

Stephen Turner served as a jet mechanic in the Air Force from 1989 to 1993. (Photo: Stephen Turner)
Stephen Turner served as a jet mechanic in the Air Force from 1989 to 1993. (Photo: Stephen Turner)
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WASHINGTON (SBG) — This year marks 30 years since Operation Desert Storm, the start of the Gulf War. Today, decades after the conflict, hundreds of thousands of veterans are dealing with lingering health problems. Emerging research shows those veterans may be more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Stephen Turner served as a jet mechanic in the Air Force from 1989 to 1993, deployed during Operation Desert Storm. Today, he suffers from depression, anxiety and PTSD. When he hears a tornado siren near his southern Illinois home, it brings back painful memories of the war. "Those bring back all of the feelings when I was putting on all my chemical gear and running for the bomb bunkers," Stephen Turner told Inside Your World Investigates. "I'm looking for SCUDS coming across the sky and I'm waiting to be killed."

Turner now takes 17 medications, and says he struggles in his daily life, facing constant pain from a long list of health problems. He believes he suffers from Gulf War Illness, a mysterious sickness still being researched by leading scientists. Johns Hopkins Medicine defines Gulf War syndrome as a "widely used term to refer to the unexplained illnesses occurring in veterans of 1991 Gulf War." The search for explanations is happening right now.

Part of the equation is the threat of chemical warfare during the Gulf War, which meant new measures of protection for soldiers. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, during the conflict, soldiers were given pills and shots to protect them from gas attacks. In addition, they were exposed to soot in the air from oil wells set on fire. Soldiers faced the threat of extremely hot temperatures, as well as harmful sounds from guns and machinery during their service, and nine infectious diseases present in their geographical region. The constant presence of sand fleas and insects in the desert prompted service members to douse themselves in pesticides. "We sprayed it on our face, our necks, our legs, everything, all over," Turner recalled.

"They way I perceived things was, back then, was my government will take care of me to the end, and my government would not give me anything or allow me to be exposed to anything that was toxic or bad for my health without letting me know," said Gulf War veteran Stephen Turner. "Do I believe that now? No."

Today, leading doctors believe that a cocktail of chemical exposures and other factors may trigger what's known as Gulf War Illness, which can have a range of symptoms from joint pain, to respiratory issues, and insomnia. An estimated 300,000 service members are believed to be suffering from it.

A recent study by researchers at Boston University and Augusta University indicates vets with Gulf War Illness are physically aging faster, and show earlier onset of chronic conditions like diabetes, stroke and arthritis. According to the study, "Results indicate that GW veterans are at higher risk of chronic conditions than the general population." That's a major concern during a global pandemic.

Dr. Nancy Klimas, who's been treating affected service members since 1991, says a Gulf War veteran's immune system may make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19. "There's some important cells in the immune system driving a lot of inflammation," said Dr. Klimas, "And along comes COVID, that feeds on that and cranks on the inflammation, and they should be at higher risk for a more serious infection when they get COVID."

"At least hyphothetically, as an immunologist, I'm very concerned that people with Gulf War Illness are at higher risk for more serious COVID," Dr. Nancy Klimas told Inside Your World Investigates."

Right now, there are no direct studies that show whether Gulf War veterans are more vulnerable to serious COVID infection, but Dr. Klimas believes it's a concern because of the pre-existing conditions and symptoms they often face. She says Gulf War veterans should be careful not to get COVID. If they do become infected, she says it's crucial that they seek medical care early by calling a help line or seeing a doctor.

For now, the search for answers about Gulf War Illness is ongoing. The VA acknowledges unexplained illnesses with a range of symptoms in Gulf War Veterans, but does not officially recognize “Gulf War Illness” as a disease. Instead it refers to the illnesses as "chronic multi-symptom illness." Whatever the name, it’s an emerging area of research, with Congress setting aside $22 million in federal funds to support studies of it last year alone. Dr. Klimas says, thanks to that research, we are on the verge of an exciting time, that could lead to discoveries of new treatments.

Back in Illinois, Stephen Turner hopes to retire soon, and spend time fishing, as he continues to try and manage his health. He hopes new studies and more awareness of Gulf War Illness will lead to breakthroughs, and help service members get help. "I think more of these studies should be done because there's a lot going on that's not being told," he said. "It's kind of swept under the rug a lot of times and forgotten about. But for people like me and other people that's been in the first Persian Gulf War, they're very real and they're in our face."

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The Boston University Gulf War Illness Consortium is looking for veterans to participate in a research study to help understand the illness. To sign up for the study, or learn more about their efforts, click here.

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