By Camilla Louise Lyngsby, Columbia University SIPA
[An April 2010] report released by the Institute of Medicine now provides additional scientific evidence to back up veterans’ claims that Gulf War illnesses exist, and are associated with their deployment.
Still, the soldiers who served the nation from 1990-1991 have not been getting the health care, treatment and disability benefits they needed and earned.
Just before the beginning of this semester, this reporter attended a congressional hearing on the issue.
Donald Overton, Executive Director for Veterans of Modern Warfare who served in the Gulf War, receives benefits for his blindness because it’s irrefutable, but not for his debilitating symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome.
“While some may view my injuries as devastating, particularly my blindness, I consistently contend I am one of the fortunate warriors that served during this conflict,” said Overton. “My conditions unlike those of so many of my battle buddies, could not be refuted by the Veterans Benefits Administration, thus affording me access to VA healthcare and benefits program.”
Of the 696,842 service members who served in the war, about 250,000 veterans suffer from the multi-symptom illness also, known as Gulf War Syndrome.
This is the same government that placed them in harm’s way that is now unwilling to fulfill its obligations to protect them. Many of the soldiers who served in the conflict were wounded in the line of duty and suffering from a range of physical disabilities including Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia which is the most common arthritis-related illness and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. According to the Veterans of Modern Warfare, “We believe that these presumptions are appropriate and consistent with countless peer-reviewed scientific studies that have concluded that these conditions and symptom sets have high, unusual prevalence among veterans of the 1990 – 1991 Gulf War.”
Gulf War veterans are heading down that same path as the Vietnam War veterans exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange, and who were denied disability compensation benefits for decades.
Soon after the Gulf War, veterans started to contact the American Legion Service Officers complaining about health issues stemming from their service in the country or upon their return from Southwest Asia. “The symptoms were wide-ranging, but fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes, memory loss appeared to be met with a common diagnosis ─ “It is all in your head,” or “It is stress-related,” by both the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care professionals, said Ian de Planque, Deputy Director of Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission, American Legion. We even learned of biases within the health care profession that found undiagnosed illness as simply a desire for disability compensation.”
It’s unclear how to treat Gulf War Syndrome, a cluster of symptoms that doesn’t fit into current medical concepts of disease. There is now scientific consensus that Gulf War illness is real. And being sick is a fundamental reality to the veterans suffering from the war illnesses.
In order to be effective, Dr. Stephen Hauser, the medical doctor and chairman of the most recent Institute of Medicine panel on Gulf War illness research suggested that, large scale research models are needed much like government-sponsored programs that are performed in the same manner as a national effort to eradicate polio or government research efforts to eliminate HIV/AIDS.
Chairman James Binns of the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses said it is essential “to employ the best in American science, run by people who go to bed at night and wake up in the morning thinking about this problem, [but] this country is not doing that.”
Congressional members routinely ask if the VA has adequate funding to carry out its obligations, and the VA’s response is always that it has sufficient funds. However, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has accused the VA of underestimating funding needs.
Since 2009, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki and his Gulf War Veterans Illness Task Force was charged with reexamining the disability claims of thousands of veterans. But, some skeptics say that problems remain at the VA. Paul Sullivan of the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense said, “If VA Secretary Shinseki won’t fix VA’s Research Office, then Congress must intervene and place Gulf War research outside of their area of responsibility.”
In November 2005, $75 million was appropriated for Gulf War illness research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. However In 2010, the VA cancelled the research program and is in the process of launching a new program. But apparently the VA staff is still funding research focused on “stress,” as shown in a VA most recent announcement of $2.8 million for research widely criticized by Gulf War veterans.
To this day, the trail remains cold. There have been many speculations and disagreements about the causes of the Gulf War Syndrome and the health issues faced by thousands of soldiers. Some causes considered include soldiers’ exposure to depleted uranium, chemical weapons, environmental hazards, anthrax vaccines given to deployed soldiers and infectious diseases. But many of these potential sources have been debunked.
To date, research on the exposure to depleted uranium has not been launched. [Editor’s Note: substantial research has been conducted on DU, and found that inhaled and ingested DU are of substantial human health concern, including DNA and RNA changes that may result in long latency cancers.]
The Gulf War Syndrome and related diseases are not unique to the U.S. Many coalition soldiers reported illnesses upon their return home. In particularly German and British soldiers are suffering from Gulf War illnesses. They are waiting for the U.S. to spearhead an investigation and research into what has caused them to be sick upon return from the war zone and to why they are suffering from undiagnosed ailments and medically unexplained chronic illnesses. But the key difference is that Germany and the UK are providing medical treatment and disability benefits. Unlike the United States, these countries are taking care of their own.
The Veterans of Modern Warfare is urging Congress to enact legislation to remove all sunset provisions so health care and benefits last for the for the lifetime of every Gulf War veteran and every surviving beneficiary. Gulf War veterans have pointed to the complexity of accessing benefits and gaining permission to the Veterans Health Administration.
Chairman Charles Cragin, Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans said, “Consider for a moment that all of the fine men and women were considered in excellent health and ‘deployable’ when they went to war and shortly after their return home, the veterans began complaining of feeling ill and seeking help. These veterans were not engaged in a massive, national conspiracy to defraud the government. Rather they were sick. The ‘Process’ became a wall rather than a door.”
In 2009, the VA Task Force was responsible for conducting a comprehensive review of all VA programs and services that serve the Gulf War cohort of veterans. “Due to significant limitations in VA’s Gulf War Veterans Information System and the GWVIS reports generated from the various data sources used by the information system, it is extremely difficult to accurately portray the experiences of the 1990-1991 Gulf War cohort and their respective disability claims or health care issues,” said Chief of Staff John Gingrich, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That said, Gingrich continued, “This shortfall did not prevent the Task Force from identifying gaps in services as well as opportunities to better serve this veteran cohort.”
The Gulf War Veterans Information System was corrupted. To date, the issues with this data system have not been addressed, said Cragin during the hearing, “If you don’t have good data, you can’t make good decisions.”
Still, remarkably, the veterans don’t regret their service.
“The most revealing comment we have heard from the ill Gulf War veterans that we have talked to,” said Ian de Planque, “was their answer to one simple question, “If you had it all to do over again and your unit was deployed to the Persian Gulf, would you go?”
The answer was unanimous ─ ‘Absolutely!’
These young men and women did not fail us ─ We as a nation have failed them.”
Camilla Louise Lyngsby is a second year Master of International Affairs student and SIPA News Editor for Communiqué