Sunday, November 23, 2008

PALM BEACH POST: Gulf War vets vindicated

Palm Beach Post Editorial Writer

Sunday, November 23, 2008

For more than a decade, the government told hundreds of thousands of Gulf War veterans that their complaints about neurological illness were unfounded. The government attributed the symptoms - memory loss, anxiety, fatigue, nausea, joint pain, dizziness, diarrhea, breathing difficulties - to psychological issues. It was all in their heads.

Veterans of other wars had heard this before. World War I vets were told that their lung damage had nothing to do with poison gases they breathed on the battlefield. World War II and Korean vets heard that exposure to radiation did not cause the cancers they developed years later. And, of course, exposure to Agent Orange did no long-term damage to Vietnam troops.

The government's first response is always to suggest that some veterans just weren't tough enough or had underlying psychological problems. For the government, a diagnosis of battle fatigue or battlefield stress was preferable to admissions of culpability or ignorance. Legions of combat vets died while waiting for straight answers about their health problems. The complaints about Gulf War syndrome appeared to be fading the same way until 2002.

That year, researchers who looked at 2.5 million veterans found that Gulf War troops were nearly twice as likely to develop amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - Lou Gehrig's disease - as those who served elsewhere. The results stunned scientists who expected to find fewer cases of the disease in a population of physically fit young people receiving excellent medical care.

After the report, Congress mandated a comprehensive study to determine once and for all whether Gulf War syndrome was a manifestation of the mind or the result of a poisoned body. Seventeen years since the war began, the results finally have come in: Gulf War syndrome is a "real condition," and roughly one in four of the 697,000 veterans from that war suffers lifelong neurological damage from it.

The researchers cited two likely causes: the drug pyridostigmine bromide, or PB, which soldiers took as protection against nerve gas; and pesticides that were widely used in Iraq and Kuwait. No similar symptoms have surfaced among troops in other theaters.

The Food and Drug Administration had not approved the small, white PB pills as an anti-nerve agent in 1991 but gave the military a waiver. Veterans long have suspected the pills, but the government dismissed the assertions as fantasy. After all, billions in disability benefits hung in the balance.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is one more expensive, tragic mess the Obama administration soon will inherit. But the effects of Gulf War illness are irreversible. Nobody gets better; most every victim gets worse. Many can't work.

Anthony Hardie, who participated in the study, called the 450-page report "a bittersweet victory." While it vindicates victims and validates their complaints, it also documents the government's incompetence and insensitivity. "Years were squandered by the federal government," Mr. Hardie says, "trying to disprove that anything could be wrong with Gulf War veterans." The report lamented that "many had the misfortune of developing lasting health consequences that were poorly understood and, for too long, denied or trivialized."

It is a familiar shame. The delusion is also familiar. We like to think that we honor our veterans for their service, but the national definition of honor doesn't include repairing the damage they bring home.

No comments: