Friday, February 26, 2010

Gulf War vets, advocates wary of government promises; Evaluation--VA leader vows to look into whether claims of veterans have been wrongfully denied.

Written By Matthew D. LaPlante

(Salt Lake City, Utah – Salt Lake Tribune) -- Gulf War veterans suffering from illnesses they blame on their service say the Department of Veterans Affairs has a lot to prove.

In an interview with The Associated Press, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said his department will take a "fresh, bold look" to reconsider whether the disability claims of thousands of sick vets are wrongfully denied.

But after dealing with years of government denial, and nearly two decades in which many former military members have been unable to win compensation for a slew of symptoms often called "Gulf War Illness," advocates say they're not ready to praise the VA for its plan.

"It doesn't do anything just to say you're going to do something," said James Randazzo, commander of the Utah chapter of the Disabled Veterans of America. "If there's one thing I've learned, it is that when the government says it's going to do something, you should wait to see if it actually does it."

James Bunker, who runs the National Gulf War Resource Center, said Shinseki needs to back up his words with new training to change the way claims are evaluated.

"It's not enough just to tell someone, 'We think you might have screwed up before, go back and look at this again,' " he said.

John Gingrich, a retired Army colonel who was tapped by Shinseki to help review the benefits and care provided to Gulf War veterans, said that's just what is going to happen. "We're talking about a culture change," he told the AP.


Janalee Green, who helps veterans file claims at the Veterans Benefits Administration regional office in Salt Lake City, said her office hasn't been given directions on how to implement Shinseki's plan. But Green said she welcomes any new direction that will result in more veterans being compensated for their service-connected illnesses.

"I do hear complaints" from those who feel they have been wrongly denied compensation, Green said.

And the number of those who are experiencing illnesses they believe may be linked to their service continues to grow, she said.

"Just today I had a woman come in," Green said. "She's seen a million different doctors and now she's convinced that this has something to do with her service in the Gulf War."

Tens of thousands of veterans returned from the war suffering from chronic fatigue, heightened chemical sensitivity, skeletal pain, skin rashes and other medical conditions that physicians have been unable to attribute to a single cause. The VA initially denied most claims on that basis.

Last year, a federal panel of medical experts agreed that Gulf War Illness is real and affects at least a quarter of the 700,000 veterans who served in the 1990-91 conflict. But the government still doesn't recognize Gulf War Illness as a compensation-worthy diagnosis. Instead, it is up to sick veterans to establish that each symptom is related to their wartime service.

And that can sometimes make it difficult for veterans like the one Green assisted on Friday to get the compensation they desire.

"We wrote up a claim for her," Green said. "Now we'll see how it goes." /

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