Instead of fixing the many serious problems at VA related to Gulf War veterans, VA has retaliated against Gulf War veterans and Gulf War veterans' advocates on the RAC who "dared" raise these issues -- despite the fact that raising the many serious issues is fully consistent with the RAC's longstanding, Congressionally directed mission to serve as an oversight body advocating for ill Gulf War veterans with the ultimate standard by which federal research must be judged being effective treatments for Gulf War Illness.
To date, VA has no proven effective treatments for Gulf War Illness, and last year, the expert panel overseeing federal Gulf War Illness research efforts, the RAC, gave VA a scathing unanimous finding of, "no confidence in the ability or demonstrated intention of VA staff to formulate and execute an effective VA Gulf War illness research program.”
It should be noted that before the media became involved, Gulf War veterans' advocates sought to work for over two weeks with the VA Secretary's office to fix these issues, to no avail. At the beginning of this week, all the Gulf War veterans on the panel (the RAC) sent a joint, eight-page letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki regarding these concerns. No one from VA has even bothered to acknowledge let alone respond to the veterans' letter.
In what world is it acceptable for the United States Government to attack and retaliate against disabled war veterans who seek only legitimate justice in the form of proven effective treatments for those left disabled from their wartime toxic exposures?
All of this should be unacceptable to anyone with a conscience. Secretary Shinseki needs to reverse these issues and fix the many serious problems at VA, not enable attacks against those raising legitimate issues negatively affecting fellow disabled veterans
Over the next several days, 91outcomes will release a series of VA internal documents showing VA's retaliation against Gulf War veterans and their advocates on the RAC. The goal remains to reverse these sweeping changes and to for once and for all get to work fixing the many serious issues at VA.
Meanwhile, Gulf War veterans and those who care about them should contact their Members of Congress, forwarding this USA Today article and pass legislation to fix these serious issues.
VA must reverse these charter changes and address the many recommendations of the RAC, medical researchers, a whistleblower, and veterans regarding what's needed for Gulf War veterans' at VA.
Source: USA Today, Kelly Kennedy reporting
Advocates say VA gutting Gulf War Illness panel
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki has altered the charter of an independent board to research Gulf War Illness, cut its budget and limited the board's independence, according to a directive Shinseki signed last month.
"I have discussed these issues with the secretary and have directed the staff to implement a few actions regarding the committee," said Jose Riojas, Shinseki's interim chief of staff, in a May 16 letter to James Binns, the group's director. "In summary, I have directed that one-half of the members remain and one-half be replaced in accordance with VA policy," Riojas wrote.
Binns, Riojas wrote, is invited to remain as chairman of the board for one more year to "assist the transition process."
Rather than having an independent staff, the board's staff may now be provided by regular VA personnel. Before, the board oversaw those people.
The VA has not yet responded to a query from USA TODAY.
Shinseki's directive is a retaliation for a 2012 no-confidence vote from the board to the VA and a March House hearing in which a whistle-blower testified that the VA intentionally misled the public about research that would lead to costly benefits for veterans, said Paul Sullivan, a former VA official who now works as a veterans' advocate.
Sullivan also wrote the legislation that created the Research Advisory Committee (RAC) on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses.
"They are retaliating by firing the chair, removing half the members, and reducing the scope of the committee," Sullivan said. "Without a doubt, it is a complete gutting of the board."
The group's new charter removes this language: "The committee shall assess the overall effectiveness of government research to answer central questions on the nature, causes, and treatments for health consequences of military service in the Southwest Asia theater of operations during the 1990-91 Gulf War."
"With these sweeping changes, VA is undoing 15 years of progress and trying to reset the clock on our 1998 landmark legislation," said Anthony Hardie, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War and member of the committee.
The committees's work led to a 450-page 2008 report that showed Gulf War illness is a physical condition, rather than one caused by stress or psychiatric illnesses. The report also showed that the symptoms are related to toxins, such as sarin, anti-nerve-agent pills and insect repellents, that the troops were exposed to during the war.
A 2012 report by the group also said that VA staff was working to reverse those findings. For example, a survey VA sent out to Gulf War veterans focused on psychiatric issues, rather than physical exposures.
"It has been accepted science since 2004 that Gulf War Illness is not a psychiatric problem, when Secretary (Anthony) Principi on the recommendation of the RAC forbade further research based on the premise that it was caused by stress," Binns wrote in a letter to Riojas. "It is extremely alarming to see hard-line staff seeking to undermine this knowledge."
In March, committee members testified during a hearing with Steven Coughlin, a former VA epidemiologist, before a House committee where Coughlin said VA officials purposely hide or manipulate data to avoid paying costly benefits claims to Gulf War veterans.
"In the spirit of candor and directness, I find your assertions to be unwarranted with regard to the department's handling of the Coughlin allegations and the hiring strategy for the chief research and development officer," Riojas wrote Binns.
The committee's role, Riojas wrote Binns, should not be as "watchdog for all Gulf War-related work at VA. VA has robust oversight and investigation capability to address alleged wrongdoing."
In response, Binns wrote, "Congress . . . created the (committee) precisely to provide this kind of independent advice, because of the demonstrated inability of VA and DoD (Department of Defense) staff to face this problem honestly and conduct an effective research program to solve it."
The 1997 congressional report that led to the creation of the board found that "efforts on Gulf War issues" by the VA, the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Food and Drug Administration were "irreparably flawed." The report also stated, "We find current approaches to research, diagnosis and treatment unlikely to yield answers to veterans' life-of-death questions in the foreseeable, or even far distant, future."
Binns said the staff members behind the recent reversals "are some of the same people that Congress was concerned about in 1997."