Written by Rick Maze - Staff writer, Army Times
Some veterans of Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 war to force Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait, have given up on the Department of Veterans Affairs and are seeking private care or not seeking treatment for what they believe are war-related disabilities.
“I have heard from countless other Gulf War veterans who, like many Vietnam veterans before them, have stopped going to the VA or have simply given up and have done their best to adapt to the substantial lifestyle changes required by their disabilities,” Army veteran Anthony Hardie said.
Hardie, who continues to suffer from the so-called “Kuwait cough” that started after he breathed in smoke from oil fires during the Gulf War, was one of the witnesses at a July 25 hearing of the House Veterans’ Affairs health subcommittee.
He said VA is still seeing Gulf War veterans who have undiagnosed problems, but “being seen is not the same thing as being treated.”
Retired Air Force Reserve Maj. Montra Denise Nichols, a registered nurse who said she saw the beginning signs of the mysterious Gulf War syndrome while deployed with her aeromedical evacuation group along the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, also said veterans are being overlooked.
Despite promises from VA to provide research, treatment, support groups and a patient registry, many veterans feel responsible for educating their own doctors.
Nichols called it “unacceptable for ill patients who look to their doctors for relief to have to bring in stacks of research that shows the direction the physicians should be examining.”
Another Gulf War veteran, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Mikolajcik, said the failure to do more could end up hurting new generations of veterans.
Mikolajcik was diagnosed in 2003 with the usually fatal amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, known as Lou Gerhrig’s disease. He said a 2001 study shows Gulf War veterans are twice as likely to have ALS as the general population, and a 2005 study found that all veterans, dating back to World War II, have an ALS rate 1.6 times that of the general population.
The cause and possible link to military service is unknown, he said, but he urged Congress to do more in terms of research and treatment.
“There will be young men, women and families celebrating a return from Iraq and Afghanistan alive who have no idea that they may soon be facing a certain death from ALS,” he said.
The chairman of VA’s advisory committee on research into Gulf War-related disabilities said veterans who think they are not getting enough attention may be right.
“Gulf War illnesses remain a major unmet veterans’ health problem,” said James Binns, chairman of VA’s research advisory committee on Gulf War veterans’ illnesses.
Sixteen years after operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Binns said serious health problems continue and most of the money spent on research has been wasted.
“One in four of those who served — 175,000 veterans — remain seriously ill, and there are currently no effective treatments,” he said, referring to the multisymptom illness known as Gulf War syndrome.