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Gulf War Syndrome Study: Maine Soldiers Hope for a Cure
04/22/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Twenty-two years ago this month, the 1991 Gulf War came to an end. Of the approximately 700,000 American troops sent to the region to lead a multi-national effort to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, about a third have since been affected by an illness known as Gulf War Syndrome. The chronic multi-symptom disorder has proved difficult to diagnose and treat. But last month, scientists at Georgetown University announced what could be a major breakthrough. For some veterans in Maine, it's been a long and frustrating wait.

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Gulf War Syndrome Study: Maine Soldiers Hope for Listen
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Eric Spear, right, receiving an award for his military service.

For the first time, researchers have found evidence that veterans with Gulf War Syndrome undergo physical changes in their brains. It's believed that those changes make people susceptible to pain and fatique. And for 53-year-old Eric Spear of Oakland, Maine this is welcome news.

"The thing that really bothers me though is that it's taken them so many years to finally come up and say, 'Yeah, we think this happened over there,' - that by the time they finally figure the whole thing out, a lot of us are going to be dead and gone," Spear says.

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Eric Spear (front row, far left) during his deployment overseas in the Gulf War.

Now a state employee, Spear was deployed to the desert in January '91, as a captain attached to the 101st Airborne Division, where he was in charge of refueling operations for the push into Iraq. He returned to the U.S. three months later, in seemingly good health - at least for a while.

"For me it was about three or four months after I got back to Fort Hood," Spear says. "It started hitting me when we were out doing PT in the mornings - you know, we'd go out at 6.30, we'd do our push-ups and sit-ups and 3-mile runs, and after a while I got to where I couldn't finish the 3-mile run without getting dry heaves, throwing up, and getting really tired."

Before long he couldn't run at all. After an exhaustive series of tests, he was eventually given a diagnosis. "They didn't call it Gulf War Syndrome at that point, they called it chronic fatigue syndrome."

Gulf War syndrome 2In 1992, after 12 years active duty, Spear (in photo, left) took early retirement from the Army, which has rated him 30 percent disabled. Over the years, Spear says he has also been plagued with low-grade fevers, headaches, stomach problems and short-term memory loss.

But the Texas native says it's the fatigue that's affected him the most. "I changed my whole life around to deal with the fatigue. One of the things I did was move up here in Maine where it had a cooler climate, and get a job with the state so I could work inside at a desk job."

Even with the help of antibiotics, Spear still finds life difficult. He limits food intake to one evening meal a day. Anything more and he becomes too exhausted to function normally and has to sleep.

The story of Eric Spear and others like him is a familiar one to Alison Johnson, of Topsham, Maine. She's written a book about Gulf War Syndrome.

During her research, Johnson interviewed dozens of veterans, and found that their symptoms varied widely. "Medical people like to have diseases or conditions fit into a neat little category where you list off four or five symptoms, and this constitutes that condition or disease. But with Gulf War Syndrome different people have different reactions," she says.

Some might have asthma, she says, while others experience memory loss, joint pain, migraines, or - as Eric Spear knows only too well - fatigue.

Just as there's no one symprom for Gulf War Syndrome, neither is there one clear cause. Some theories include exposure to toxic chemicals on the battlefield: burning oil wells, pesticide and nerve agent antidotes that were administered to the troops.

The recent Pentagon-funded study at Georgetown scanned the brains of 31 veterans with GWS, and 20 control subjects.
In the veterans' brains, it found abnormalities in the bundles of nerve fibers that connect the areas of the brain involved in processing pain and fatigue.

Some veterans feel pain doing something as simple as putting on a shirt. Alison Johnson says the study's implications are enormous, and go beyond the military world.

"So many people with chronic illness conditions have been looking for a biomarker, and this does seem to indicate a test that could show why they're so sick," Johnson says. "So this has great implications for chronic fatigue syndome, multiple chemical sensitivity, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome."

"I'm just looking forward to working with my colleagues to provide some additional resources to do more research in this area," says Democratic Maine Congressman Mike Michaud.

Michaud is ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. In 2011 he helped secure $10 million in funding for the Georgetown study. "'Cause I was hearing a lot from soldiers that served in the Gulf War, and the fact that no one was really paying any attention to them, as far as their problems."

Michaud is helping lead a congressional effort to keep the funding level at $20 million for the coming fiscal year.

Maine veteran Eric Spear says this is all positive news - especially for those veterans who have not had their illnesses formally recognized. For him, it's unikely to change anything: His illness is already recognized as being service-related.

Also, he's not sure he wants a brain scan, "because I know there's something there," he says. "I don't know if I'd want to actually verify that I had something damaged in there."

As for the years he spent in uniform serving his country, he says he has no regrets. "When I think back, I don't know - just the way I was raised, or I'm a patriot or whatever, I don't know - but if I knew that I was going to have what I have now and they asked me to go back, if I had to do it all over again, I'd still do it again."

View the Georgetown University Medical Center study on Gulf War Syndrome.

Photos courtesy of Eric Spear.



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