A plan by the Department of Veterans Affairs to sharply increase funding for research into Gulf War illnesses marks a turning point in how the government perceives the problem, the leader of a veterans group says.

"We've had to fight tooth and nail to convince people that Gulf War illness was more than stress," said Steve Robinson of the National Gulf War Resource Center, an umbrella group of 60 veterans organizations.

The department announced last week it would make up to $20 million available for research in 2004. That is more than double the amount spent by the department in any previous year, it said. By comparison, the VA spent $8.4 million in 2001 and $3.7 million in 2002. .

VA spokesman Jim Benson said he doesn't view the funding as a change of direction noting that more than 200 research projects have been funded by the VA and other agencies.

"It's hard to say we just got the message because we've been spending a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of effort looking for a cause, and have been treating Gulf veterans the whole time," he said.

Tens of thousands of veterans of the Persian Gulf War have suffered from a variety of illnesses they believe were linked to their service.

Many scientists have blamed stress, but veterans believe it is more likely they were exposed to a toxin in the Gulf. In one example, they point to the 101,000 soldiers who the Pentagon says were exposed to deadly gases when U.S. combat engineers blew up a weapons depot in Khamisiyah, in southern Iraq, in 1991.