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WASHINGTON — Researchers will track more than 100,000 servicemembers over the next 17 years to help gauge the health effects of military service, overseas deployment and combat exposure.

The Millennium Cohort Study — which researchers say is the largest of its kind — is designed to create a semi-annual snapshot of the armed forces’ general health and help identify the roots of medical mysteries like Gulf War Syndrome.

“After the first Gulf War, we didn’t know if there was a way to unify all the symptoms [that] troops were reporting, and there was no way to look back and see if those problems existed before the war,” said Dr. Paul Amoroso, an Army colonel involved in the study.

“This will allow us to get data pre-exposure … and follow anything that could come up.”

The research began in 2001. About 77,000 troops, selected randomly, have submitted general information about their health and fitness though periodic surveys.

Another 25,000 have agreed to participate so far this year, and officials will try to sign up 40,000 more in 2008.

Lead researcher Dr. Margaret Ryan, a Navy commander with the Naval Health Research Center in California, said the sample group includes members of all four Department of Defense services, active and reserve units, and a disproportionate number of women to create a large enough sample to monitor their particular health issues.

“It’s worked out well because the people we’re dealing with now have a different set of experiences from those we signed up in 2001,” she said. “If we were to deploy to another part of the world in a few years, we’ll be in a position to comment about the effects from that area, and define unique exposures there.”

Ryan said that so far, about 75 percent of the original enrollees have responded to all of the semi-annual surveys, a higher response rate than expected.

Researchers may sign up additional groups in 2011 and beyond to create an even larger sample, but plan on following all of the participants’ health until 2022.

Ryan said servicemembers cannot volunteer to participate, but researchers are asking anyone who receives an invitation to take part. Enrollment for this year’s group will stay open until the end of the year, to accommodate troops who may have received a survey while deployed.

Servicemembers invited to participate are being sent survey packets through the mail and to their military e-mail periodically.

Participants can also update their personal information on the study’s Web site, and Ryan said researchers are sending out postcards every Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day to remind participants to provide current contact information and to complete their surveys.

Amoroso said troops do not receive any pay for participating, but so far have embraced the idea of developing tools to ensure future servicemembers stay healthy.

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