CHAIRMAN BOB FILNER
HOUSE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS’ AFFAIRS
VA Unresponsive to Questions, Needs of Gulf War Veterans
Washington, D.C. – On Tuesday, May 19, 2009, the House Veterans’ Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, led by Chairman Harry Mitchell (D-AZ), conducted the first of a series of hearings on Gulf War Illness research. The hearing provided a review of the history of the research that has been conducted on Gulf War Illness, examined the methodology used by the (VA) to determine possible exposure to toxins and pesticides, and focused on the ongoing challenges veterans face as a result of their service in Operations Desert Shield and .
“It has been almost 19 years since the United States deployed some 700,000 service members to the Gulf in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm,” said Chairman Mitchell. “When these troops returned home, some reported symptoms that were believed to be related to their service. Still today, these same veterans are looking for answers about proper medical treatment and the benefits that they bravely earned. While we hear about numerous studies and millions of dollars spent on Gulf War Illness research, many questions remain unanswered. Today, we will attempt to establish an understanding of the research that has been conducted – and the actions that have been taken – in relation to Gulf War Illness.”
According to Congressional testimony, VA had concerns that returning veterans might have certain unique health problems including respiratory effects from exposure to the intense oil fire smoke even before the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire. During the summer of 1993, U.S. troops’ exposure to chemical warfare (CW) agents first became an issue. The Department of Defense (DoD) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) concluded that no troops had been exposed for two reasons: there were no forward-deployed CW agent munitions, and plumes of CW agents released from the bombing that destroyed the chemical facilities could not have reached the troops. This conclusion was maintained until June 1996, when DoD publicly acknowledged that U.S. troops had destroyed stockpiles of chemical munitions at after the war.
In 1998, Congress passed legislation, the Persian Gulf War Veterans Act of 1998 and the Veterans Programs Enhancement Act of 1998, which directed the VA Secretary to seek to enter into an agreement with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to review and evaluate the available scientific evidence regarding associations between illnesses and exposure to toxic agents, environmental or wartime hazards, or preventive medicines or vaccines to which service members may have been exposed during service in the during the Persian Gulf War. Congress directed the NAS to identify agents, hazards, medicines, and vaccines to which service members may have been exposed during the Persian Gulf War.
Between January 1, 2000 and September 12, 2006, NAS issued four reports on health effects of various toxins, chemical warfare agents, and insecticides. Each report concluded that the available evidence did not warrant a presumption of service connection for any disease discussed in the report. The fifth report, released October 16, 2006, reviewed published, peer-reviewed scientific and medical literature on long-term health effects from infectious diseases associated with Southwest Asia. VA is currently drafting a proposed rule to establish presumptive service connection for nine infectious diseases discussed in the report and providing guidance regarding long-term health effects associated with those diseases. It was determined, however, that the scientific evidence in the report does not warrant a presumption of service connection for any illnesses caused by these diseases or agents.
Veterans raised a number of concerns at the hearing, mostly based on lack of information, outreach, and resources available from the VA. Veterans reported frustration that there is no formal Gulf War I Registry, no service-connected benefits for maladies, inadequate research to determine the cause of illness, no formal recognition by the VA of Gulf War Illness, and a lack of epidemiological tools in use to further track effects of Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield.
Recommendations from witnesses included increasing the VA research budget, formal recognition by DoD and VA of Gulf War Illness, access to disability benefits, and an end to the perceived secrecy that surrounds research findings, treatments, and new information. Also discussed was the immediate need to implement an electronic medical health record that fully incorporates the veteran’s military record. Rick Weidman of Vietnam Veterans of America testified,
“VA needs to move quickly to modify the Computerized Patient Records System (CPRS) or VISTA, to incorporate a military history that will include branch of service, periods of service, places assigned and when, military occupational specialties, and notes on what happened to the individual that may be of note. This also needs to be searchable on a nationwide basis, so that if an individual has an unusual medical condition, then the physician can search and find out if others who served in their unit at the same time have the same or similar conditions. This would be an invaluable epidemiologic tool that could/would point VA in the direction of where there needs to be research that is directed where there are obviously problems. You may ask why they never did this before? Well, we have come to the inescapable conclusion that they never did it because they did not want the information. As the cost to make this change to the CPRS is really minimal, we can come up with no other explanation that makes any sense whatsoever.”
“If Gulf War veterans have been harmed by their service to their country, we must ensure they are taken care of through presumptive service connection for that illness,” said Bob Filner (D-CA), Chairman of the on Veterans’ Affairs. “I support President Obama’s call to develop joint electronic medical records that contain military records. Not only is this information sharing between the DoD and VA imperative to more accurately treat maladies and service connected injuries, it will allow the VA to refocus its efforts and direct care to its wounded warriors. It is time for the VA to compassionately and immediately serve its clients.”
Subsequent hearings on this issue will take a multi-level view of the methodology and conclusions of Gulf War Illness research, how the review of information was compiled, and why certain methods were employed.