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Sick Soldiers: Symptoms Exist but the Diagnosis Unclear

US Army
Returning from Iraq, Leroy Torres thought he had left the battle overseas. But he would soon become one of hundreds of troops fighting two more battles on our soil: a battle for recognition of a mysterious ailment and a bureaucratic one.

“When he first got back, he immediately had several ER visits for respiratory issues. We’re all scrambling. We’re all broke. We’re trying to make something happen, trying to prevent another Agent Orange,” said his wife, Rosie.

Torres was deployed to Iraq in 2007 and again in 2008, but since his return to Texas in 2008, he’s been in and out, in and out, in and out of hospitals.

Torres is not alone.

For veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan this is increasingly common. Many veterans are blaming the dust storms and burn pits — giant pits where trash in burned – for their respiratory and other symptoms.

So for these vets, what might have started as shortness of breath, or a headache, or a cough has spiraled into myriad illnesses, from lung diseases to digestive problems to brain tumors.

Mystery Symptoms

“The common thread to all of the stories is that ‘I got back from service and I can’t climb up a flight of stairs or complete my two-mile run,'” said Dr. Robert Miller, a pulmonologist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Miller has examined troops from Fort Campbell, KY for respiratory symptoms. In a study published last year. He and his fellow researchers concluded that 38 of the 80 troops they saw had constrictive bronchiolitis, a rare condition in a healthy population.

Constrictive bronchiolitis in an inflammation of the small airways of the lung where scar tissues and fibrosis could block the airways. After doing surgical biopsies, Miller noticed small black dots in the airway. He doesn’t know what causes them. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this in a civilian population.”

Even when troops see a doctor for their symptoms, it’s difficult to get an exact diagnosis. Doctors may not know what to look for or have the right equipment, said Dr. Anthony Szema, assistant professor of medicine and surgery at Stony Brook University Hospital.

“Your lungs are delicate little air sacks. Even if you have a normal breathing test, you may have an abnormal biopsy. But, they may not know how to see it,” he said, he said.

Another problem is that in order to diagnose conditions such as constrictive bronchiolitis, a surgical biopsy is required, resulting in as long as six weeks to recuperate. Szema said, “You can’t pick this up on a X-ray and you can’t take everyone to the operating room.”

Ben Krause, founder of, said that many veterans are coming forward with breathing problems, constrictive bronchiolitis and otherwise.

Another disease that worries troops is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung disease that worsens with time.

“I don’t think there’s enough awareness. Now we have this COPD and breathing issue and people don’t know what’s causing it,” Krause said.

Because doctors have been unable to determine the cause, there are no treatments. “Sometimes we give them inhalers because it makes them feel better, not because it helps,” Miller said.

He added that most of the patients he’s seen haven’t progressed past their initial diagnosis. So, he said it probably doesn’t make a difference if doctors see troops right away or not.

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Posted by on Mar 9 2012. Filed under News Coverage, Other National News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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