Skip to main content
For Immediate Help: 800-544-9144

Gulf War Illness Definition

Gulf War Illness is an umbrella term referring to a cluster of medical issues thought to be caused by toxic exposure in Southwest Asia. Gulf War Illness has affected a significant number of veterans who served in the Persian Gulf War, which began on August 2, 1990. At the present time, the period for the Persian Gulf War extends to December 31, 2021, which means that service members who have served in the Southwest Asia theater of military operations after September 2001 are eligible for benefits under VA’s Gulf War presumption. VA considers service in the following countries and locations as Gulf War Service:

  • Bahrain
  • Gulf of Aden
  • Gulf of Oman
  • Iraq
  • Kuwait
  • Qatar
  • Saudi Arabia
  • The United Arab Emirates
  • Waters of Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea
  • The airspace above these locations

Veterans of Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield meet the criteria for qualifying service during the Persian Gulf War, as do veterans of Operation New Dawn, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and in some instances, Operation Enduring Freedom. According to VA, more than 1.1 million U.S. service members have been deployed to Southwest Asia since the start of the Persian Gulf War. Many Gulf War service members and veterans started reporting an unusual collection of symptoms after their return from service.

Cause of Gulf War Illness

The exact cause of these symptoms is unknown, but the Department of Defense (DoD) has noted that troops might have been exposed to a variety of hazardous substances, including pesticides, fumes from burning oil wells, and even depleted uranium. The symptoms veterans were describing did not fit easily into recognized categories of disease, which presented a problem for healthcare providers as well as VA staff evaluating Gulf War-related disability claims. Generally, VA defines three categories of Gulf War Illness:

  • Undiagnosed illnesses. The term “undiagnosed illness” is meant to cover a range of symptoms and conditions that appear to be unrelated or do not conform to a formal diagnosis. An undiagnosed illness can be shown through objective evidence that a veteran has a symptom(s) of which a doctor cannot determine a diagnosis. VA lists the following symptoms as examples of undiagnosed illnesses: abnormal weight loss; cardiovascular diseases; fatigue; headaches; menstrual disorders; muscle and joint pain; neurological and psychological problems; respiratory disorders; sleep disturbances; and skin conditions.
  • Medically Unexplained Chronic Multisymptom Illness (MUCMI). A MUCMI is a diagnosed condition without a conclusive pathophysiology or etiology that is characterized by a cluster of symptoms. VA lists chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and functional gastrointestinal disorders as examples of MUCMIs.
  • Infectious Diseases. VA also includes certain infectious diseases as related to Gulf War Illness. These infectious diseases include: brucellosis; campylobacter jejuni; coxiella burnetii (“Q fever”); malaria; mycobacterium tuberculosis; nontyphoid salmonella; shigella; visceral leishmaniasis; and West Nile virus.

Presumptive Service Connection

In response to increasing reports of illness from Gulf War veterans, Congress passed legislation in 1994 that established a presumption for Gulf War veterans with an undiagnosed illness, meaning these veterans would not have to prove to VA that their illnesses were caused by their military service.

In 2001, Congress enacted legislation that created a presumption for MUCMIs, as well. Finally, in 2010, the above-mentioned infectious diseases were added to the presumption.