A coroner came close to acknowledging the existence of Gulf War syndrome yesterday when he ruled that service in the 1991 conflict played a part in the death of an Army officer.
The ruling could pave the way for thousands of veterans to claim compensation from the Ministry of Defence, which has denied the existence of the syndrome.
The inquest examined the death of Major Ian Hill, who died two years ago after more than a decade of illnesses, which he believed were caused by the syndrome.
Yesterday, Nicholas Rheinberg, sitting at Warrington coroner's court, said that Major Hill's military service had been a factor in his death.
He said: "It is not for me to make sweeping conclusions based on a day's hearing on the existence of Gulf War syndrome." But he added: "I do not believe it would do justice to Ian Hill to describe his death as natural causes. I am going to describe his death as natural causes to which his military service in the 1991 Gulf War campaign was a contributing factor."
Speaking after the hearing, Mark McGhee, solicitor for the Hill family, said the verdict was the first time a British court had recognised the connection between Gulf War illnesses and a veteran's death.
Carole Avison, Major Hill's widow, said: "While he was alive, Ian fought hard for his illness to be recognised as coming from his time in the Gulf. Now, finally, that has happened."
The court was told how Major Hill, 54, who served in the Army for 20 years, flew to the Middle East in January 1991 to help to set up operating theatres while serving with the Royal Medical Army Corps. Within four days of arriving, Major Hill became seriously ill with flu-like symptoms including severe coughing, fatigue and neck and muscle stiffness, according to a statement he made before his death.
He was diagnosed with bronchopneumonia and was sent home a month later. But he failed to recover fully and attributed the deterioration in his health over the following decade to nerve agent pre-treatment sets (Naps) tablets given before the war in 1991.
"My psychological profile changed," wrote Major Hill, who went on to become a founder member of the pressure group the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association (NGVFA).
"I could not sleep, I was irritable, I had mood swings and short-term memory loss. It was completely out of character."
Ms Avison, 56, from Knutsford in Cheshire, with whom he had four children, described the impact of his illness on the family. "We lost our home, our business, our future and our life together," she told the hearing.
During the course of her husband's illnesses, Ms Avison met many veterans who claimed to have suffered from Gulf War syndrome.
"I have seen this group of people and I have listened to them, and I don't believe in fairy tales," she said. "These are genuine people, they have something wrong with them, and wanted to know what was wrong with them. They were ill people. On the outside they looked OK, but there was something wrong with them on the inside. Someone had given them a death sentence."
The court also heard from Michael Burrows, from Hull, who was given inoculations for anthrax and botulism.
He said: "When I lay down it was like a red mist would come over me. I started to have panic attacks, which continued when I returned from the Gulf."
Air Commodore William Coker, a consultant physician who examined Major Hill in 1994 as part of a study into Gulf War syndrome, said he believed his symptoms were caused by Q fever a disease with flu-like symptoms that spreads from animals to humans contracted in the Gulf. But he said a man in good physical condition should normally recover from such an illness.
The doctor examined about a thousand Gulf War veterans in an attempt to establish whether a syndrome existed. "My conclusion was that there was no distinct syndrome because the pattern of disease was so variable," he said.
Speaking after the verdict, Shaun Rusling, chairman of the NGVFA, said: "It's a very significant finding. It will affect many widows' pensions, because there are a lot more people out there like Ian.
"No compensation has been paid out and the veterans have been treated appallingly by the Ministry of Defence."
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