25 Investigates: Research in Boston could lead to cure for Gulf War illness

BOSTON — February marked the 30-year anniversary of the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm. The war to liberate the country of Kuwait lasted less than two months. But, veterans of that war say they have been battling the debilitating effects of Gulf War illness ever since.

Anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh learned decades of research happening in Boston has led to potentially game-changing treatments. Turns out, those treatments could also help people suffering long-term effects of COVID-19.

Toxic Wounds

A six-month deployment changed Lynn Santusuosso’s life.

“My mother said when I came back, she says you’re not the same person and went over there,” the Dover, New Hampshire veteran told Kavanaugh.

In 1991, she was Army Sergeant First Class Santusuosso. She was one of the 697,000 military members sent to liberate the country of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.

When Santusuosso came home, she ended up on a new, unexpected mission.

“Just trying to figure out how to get through, get through life.” She says chronic symptoms were standing in her way.

“I couldn’t sleep. I’d wake up, not able to breathe. “The digestive problems, and yeah, there were pains and I was having headaches, a lot of headaches. And, that got written off for years.”

“It was very clear, early on, that there was something wrong with our Gulf War veterans,” said Kimberly Sullivan PhD, Research Associate Professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. Sullivan has been studying what they’ve dubbed Gulf War illness for 25 years with the Boston Biorepository, Recruitment & Integrated Network for GWI or BBRAIN.

Gulf War illness is a chronic disorder, Sullivan says, that impacts about a third of veterans, or 250,000, deployed to the Gulf War.

“So, our Gulf War veterans have debilitating fatigue, chronic pain, memory and attention problems, respiratory problems, gastrointestinal problems and skin rash,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan, and researchers across the country, believed from very early on the mysterious health symptoms were not just stress-induced.

“And actually, what seemed to be the cause of the illness was chemical exposures that our Gulf War Veterans had during this particular they had basically we call it the perfect storm of exposures during this deployment,” she said.

Exposures to chemicals that included sarin nerve gas, pesticides, and anti-nerve gas pills called pyridostigmine bromide, that did more harm than good, they say.

“We call those toxic wounds or toxic exposures,” said Anthony Hardie, a Gulf War veteran who also endures Gulf War illness. “A cough has never led up ever since chronic debilitating fatigue, chronic widespread pain.” The former Army Sergeant served from 1986-1993.

“Made me pretty angry, quite frankly, that there were so many others that I served with who were having such serious health issues,” Hardie said.

So, Hardie’s now fighting for his fellow veterans. He’s part of the group Veterans for Common Sense, which claims, for decades, the Veterans Administration hasn’t taken Gulf War illness seriously, denying claims at a rate of 80%.

25 Investigates reached out to the VA. A spokesperson told me they’re unable to confirm disability compensation claims. The VA told Kavanaugh it has commissioned 11 National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reports for the Gulf War and Health series.

The VA now acknowledges Gulf War illness affects one in three vets deployed in Desert Storm.

Hope: Game-Changing Treatments

As veterans’ battle for benefits continues, an end to the physical suffering is on the horizon.

Back at Boston University, Sullivan says a common indicator of Gulf War illness is certain brain inflammation.

“We are targeting that inflammation,” Sullivan said. “And we believe if we get the right treatments for that, based on what’s exactly causing that inflammation, we’re hoping that we have a treatment that gets rid of all that stuff.”

Treatments, that could cure the inflammation causing the debilitating symptoms are soon heading to clinical trial.

Turns out, those treatments, if successful, could extend beyond Gulf War vets, helping so-called COVID-19 long-haulers, who Sullivan says also develop chronic inflammation of the brain.

“So people who get COVID and then have it for many, many months, it’s quite similar to what we’re seeing in our Gulf War veterans,” Sullivan said.

Mixed Emotions on 30-year anniversary of the Gulf War

Veterans are marking this 30-year anniversary with mixed emotions of frustration and gratitude.

“30 years you’ve been dealing with these health issues,” Kavanaugh said. “Yes, that’s right. Yeah. And I’m not alone,” said Hardie.

“It’s completely unacceptable that our veterans come home and they’re still not being taken care of. That 30 years later, there are still some veterans who go to a VA Medical Center, and are still today, despite all of the research being told that it’s all in their heads,” Hardie claimed.

Hardie and Veterans for Common Sense continue to push for the creation of a Toxic Wounds Task Force. They say they have unsuccessfully asked each administration for since the early 1990s to create this task force. They want the task force to investigate the so-called toxic wounds that continue to impact veterans, including those serving in ongoing deployments in the Gulf.

“Finally get to the root of what we can do to improve people’s health and lives and take care of them when they’ve come home disabled,” Hardie said.

But, they are grateful for those who heard their calls for help right away.

“What would you say to the researchers and doctors that knew as soon as you came back that something is wrong,” Kavanaugh asked.

“Thank you. Thank you for believing us. Thank you for not brushing us off,” said Santusuosso.

The Boston University Research Group is still looking for gulf war veterans who want to participate in this research. You can email them at BBRAIN@BU.EDU