WASHINGTON – Dan Sullivan could hear his brother’s dogs howling inside the house when he arrived.
His brother, a retired Marine sergeant, had been very sick lately and had stopped answering his phone. So when Dan went to his Falls Church, Virginia, home to check on him and heard the dogs, he got a bad feeling.
He unlocked the door, walked in and found his brother, Tom, dead. He was sitting in his easy chair, a cup of tea, his inhaler and his medical records by his side. His cellphone had fallen under the chair. It looked like he had been gone for a while.
Dan at first thought his brother had killed himself. He had been increasingly sick since his service in Iraq four years before. His ailments seemed endless, and it was never clear exactly what was wrong. People said it must be in his head.
But Thomas J. Sullivan hadn’t committed suicide. He had died at 30 of pneumonia after years of physical and mental suffering that relatives believe were somehow, in some unexplained way, related to his deployment to Iraq.
He had not been wounded or traumatized or wearied by multiple deployments like so many other veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His case fell into the gray world of the unexplained.
Now, five years after his death on Feb. 16, 2009, his family has established the nonprofit Sergeant Sullivan Center, in Washington, for the study of what they term undiagnosed post-deployment illnesses.
The maladies, reminiscent of the Gulf War syndrome that emerged after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, are marked by, among other things, an array of respiratory, heart and bowel symptoms, along with chronic pain.
Most seem to defy diagnoses. Tom Sullivan also had high blood pressure, heart disease and colitis, and he was taking a host of potent prescription drugs, including narcotics and steroids, relatives said.
The Sullivans believe that thousands of veterans of the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan might be similarly affected.
Deployment-related illness, as something physiological, is not something that a lot of people are aware of, Dan Sullivan said.
After the 1991 Gulf War, thousands of returning veterans began suffering from an array of baffling symptoms.
They included fatigue, joint and muscle pain, gastrointestinal and respiratory problems, memory difficulties, depression and anxiety.
A report last year by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, found that one-third of ’91 Gulf War veterans – an estimated 175,000 to 250,000 people – said they experienced such symptoms.
No exact cause was apparent. Dust? Fumes? Poisons? Pesticides? Medications?
The government spent millions of dollars, and research and treatment continue.
The Sullivan Center has been raising seed money – $250,000 so far – for research into possible causes and treatments of such undiagnosed illnesses. In April, the center announced a $10,000 matching challenge grant to Georgetown University Medical Center for continued research into a possible Gulf War illness biomarker that could be found in a blood test.
At this point in time, my aim is to help people, said James Baraniuk, the professor in the department of medicine who is to receive the grant. If we can identify abnormal physiology, identify biomarkers and then find specific treatments then we will have helped them.
Last year, Pentagon-funded studies at Georgetown suggested that veterans suffering from Gulf War illness have postwar brain abnormalities not seen in those unaffected by the malady, which may cause its symptoms.
So what did Tom Sullivan have?
At first blush, there seems to be a tie (with Tom Sullivan’s story and) what potentially we saw following the ’91 Gulf War, Craig Postlewaite, director of Force Readiness and Health Assurance at the Defense Health Agency, said in an interview.
Indeed, when the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan began, the Pentagon was worried that it would see a repeat, Postlewaite said.
It didn’t happen, he said. It’s not clear why. The difference may be that military medical experts now try to treat ailments even if the cause is unclear – something that was not necessarily done two decades ago, he said.