Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Congressional Hearing on Gulf War Illness Shows the Way Forward

“Big Science,” Continued collaboration between stakeholders and VA, and VA leaders holding VA staff accountable are required

Written by Anthony Hardie, 91outcomes.com

(91outcomes.com) - This morning’s Congressional oversight hearing on Gulf War illness issues was a mix of old and new, but for the first time in history painted a picture of the way forward to which all sides seemed to agree.

As in the past, Gulf War veteran leaders like Paul Sullivan of the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense (www.veteransforcommonsense.org) minced no words in highlighting the long history of missteps and concerns that poignantly reminding the Committee members that there still are no meaningful changes in health care and benefits for Gulf War veterans with Gulf War illness.

However, the veteran leaders testifying today were particularly articulate and lucid, including Don Overton, Executive Director of Veterans of Modern Warfare (www.vmwusa.org), a protege organization of Vietnam Veterans of America (www.vva.org). 

And, while the three veterans organization representatives’ frustration was still visible at times, all outright anger was replaced with a steady flow of detailed lists of specific recommendations.  Even the American Legion, criticized by Gulf War veterans in the 1990’s for echoing the “official” government position that nothing was wrong with Gulf War veterans except “stress,” was actively engaged in advocating for Gulf War veterans.

Conspiracy theories were also noticeably absent, replaced by constructive, concrete solutions in both their oral comments – limited to just five minutes each – as well as their full written statements, which could be up to a dozen or so pages long.

But what was new was that no one – from veterans to scientists to VA officials to Congressional members – no one was questioning the reality of Gulf War illness.  There was overt acknowledgement of the credibility of the findings of the Institute of Medicine, which, after reviewing more than 1,000 studies, including reviewing 400 very closely, found chronic multi-symptom illness is associated with Gulf War service, affects at least 250,000 of the Gulf War’s 697,000 veterans, and cannot be attributed to any known psychiatric or psychological condition.

And what was also new was the clear focus of all involved in solving the host of issues surrounding Gulf War illness.  Among those issues discussed were benefits, claims, evidence-based treatments in Gulf War veterans’ health care, outreach, and prevention.

Charles Cragin, chair of the VA Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans that concluded its work last year, noted that VA’s data on Gulf War veterans is confused due to problems in VA’s Gulf War database. 

“If you don’t have good data, you can’t make good decisions,” said Cragin during the hearing.  Responding to a question from one of the Congressional members, Cragin said none of his committee’s recommendations have yet been implemented, though VA has included “most” of them in its final, upcoming first report of its internal Gulf War Task Force.

Dr. Stephen Hauser, the medical doctor and acclaimed researcher who chaired the most recent Institute of Medicine panel on Gulf War illness research, made the way forward plain. 

VA’s current research plans are a good way to fund “creative” research from individual researchers interested in the issue, sais Hauser. 

However, to succeed, “Big Science” is required, said Hauser, suggesting that good models of the kind of “top down directed” research needed to be effective for Gulf War illness would be the national effort to eradicate polio or government research efforts to identify causes of, and treatments for HIV/AIDS. 

Jim Binns, chair of the Congressionally chartered VA Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses (www1.va.gov/rac-gwvi), told the Congressional members that despite apparent progress, VA staff are still funding research focused on “stress,” as shown in last week’s VA announcement of $2.8 million for research widely criticized by Gulf War veterans.  Binns also noted that VA is finding few takers interested in applying for research funding, an outcome he attributed to years of government denial of the reality and seriousness of Gulf War illness.

VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich, who testified on behalf of the VA (www.va.gov/gulfwar), was given the last word, beginning with his own poignant testimony detailing his close experiences with Gulf War illness issues.  His experiences as a Gulf War combat officer included hearing countless chemical alarms sound during the war that never went off during training, having concerns about the NAPP pills taken by Gulf War troops that made them sick, and witnessing one of his soldiers become inexplicably seriously ill during the war – ill enough to have to be medically evacuated.

While Congressional members of the committee were explicitly respectful of Gingrich’s own Gulf War service and his readily apparent commitment to Gulf War and other veterans’ issues,  they also were sharp in their comments and questioning of the capacity of VA’s large organization in being able to bring about the kinds of changes called for by Gulf War veterans. 

Their pointed questions and observations ranged from the adequacy of funding and staffing (VA always has enough, according to whomever is testifying on behalf of VA), to voicing constituent concerns about whether real change will be felt by Gulf War veterans within the next year with regards to disability claims, improvement in health, and recognition of meaningful research.

Gingrich made it clear that he understands why Gulf War veterans are “dissatisfied” with VA, attributing it to a loss of trust that he pledged VA must, can, and will regain.

However, during questioning, Charles Cragin noted that his experience inside VA showed him that there are some VA staff who refuse to participate except if they can do things “their own way.” 

“An inordinate amount of time,” must be spent keeping VA staff on track, said Cragin, further highlighting veterans’ and Congressional members’ concerns.

While many more excellent points were made by the veteran, advisory committee chairs, and Congressional members than can be covered in this article, perhaps Jim Binns said it best.

“It is important to close on a positive note.  Twenty years into this battle, the objective is finally in sight.  It is time for leaders and resources adequate to accomplish the mission.  It is within reach.  It is a matter of choice.”

“Twenty years into this battle, the objective is finally in sight.  It is time for leaders and resources adequate to accomplish the mission.  It is within reach.  It is a matter of choice.”  -Jim Binns, Chair, RACGWVI




  • The written submissions of each panelist can be reviewed on the website of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
  • The full hearing can also be viewed as a webcast.

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