SOURCE: Arizona Republic, Sep. 20, 2014, Paul Giblin reporting
Gulf War vets: VA trying to silence claims of illness
The head of a national committee that studies the health of Gulf War veterans says senior Department of Veterans Affairs officials are obscuring scientific evidence that points to war-related illnesses among an estimated 250,000 veterans who served in the 1990-91 conflict often called the First Gulf War.
VA officials are trying to suppress the number of veterans who would be eligible for treatment and compensation to keep down costs and waiting lists for care, said committee Chairman James H. Binns, a Vietnam veteran and Phoenix business executive involved in the medical equipment industry.
Binns made his claims in a four-page letter to former interim VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors and congressional leaders on June 3 and during a private meeting with new VA Secretary Robert McDonald on Sept. 10.
"The duplicity reaches the highest levels of the department and obstructs hopes for better health of an entire generation of veterans," Binns wrote in the letter.
In response to the group's call for more attention to Gulf War vets, VA officials instead are working to eliminate the congressionally mandated committee's independence by replacing its members with hand-selected new members, Binns told The Arizona Republic.
McDonald did not respond to messages seeking comment about the VA's interactions with the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses.
Binns said his meeting with McDonald earlier this month was indeterminate.
"The issues regarding the committee remain up in the air. I won't be able to comment until they are resolved one way or the other," he said.
The sheer number of untreated Gulf War veterans gives the matter equal or greater magnitude than the VA scandal that dominated headlines in the spring and summer, Binns said. The scandal involved VA employees who deliberately altered patient waiting lists to collect performance bonuses.
"The people who set the cultural tone at the VA are the career bureaucrats," Binns toldThe Arizona Republic. "And just as you saw in the case of the wait list in Phoenix, they consistently put bureaucratic goals ahead of veterans' health."
Two members of the Gulf War committee have resigned in protest over what they described as VA officials ignoring its recommendations. Members of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans' Affairs and veterans service organizational also are pressing the issue.
The House VA committee chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and four other members, including Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., sent a letter to McDonald on Aug. 20 encouraging him to conduct a thorough review of the VA's policies regarding Gulf War vets and to retain members of the Gulf War committee whose terms are set to end this month.
"We believe the committee can be of great value to you in assessing VA's Gulf War policies. It is a time to be welcoming independent outside experts on VA's activities, not eliminating them," they wrote in the letter to McDonald.
Kirkpatrick said that the Gulf War committee has conducted valuable research and that she doesn't understand why VA officials would want limit its independence.
"Given what we found out when we were doing all the investigation into the Phoenix VA and the hospital situation with access to care, it really became very evident to us that there needs to be outside oversight on some of these important programs," Kirkpatrick told The Republic.
A bill to retain the Gulf War committee's members passed the House but awaits Senate consideration.
U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who has been involved in VA issues, said she shares Binns' concerns and plans to discuss the matter during a meeting with McDonald within days.
That may be too late for Binns. He believes that he and other members of the Gulf War committee could be dismissed as soon as the panel's next meeting at the VA's headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Monday and Tuesday.
The 12-member panel comprises physicians, scientists and veterans and is charged with advising VA officials about research regarding Gulf War-related illness.
Binns, a Harvard University law graduate and former Department of Defense policy official, has served on the Gulf War committee for 12 years.
Hundreds of thousands of veterans, who now primarily are in their 40s, suffer health problems associated with the Gulf War, Binns said.
The conflict, led by the United States, countered Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait. Coalition planes bombed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's military relentlessly for more than a month, then ground forces raced through Kuwait into Iraq in four days.
The skies above the battlefield were blackened for days with smoke from burning oil wells.
The Gulf War committee and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies have concluded that Gulf War illness exists and that it likely was caused by exposure to neurotoxins from oil-well fires, anti-nerve-gas pills, pesticides and chemicals released from low-level chemical weapons damaged in the destruction of Iraqi facilities.
About a third of those involved in the ground war suffer from a variety of ailments including respiratory conditions, unremitting pain, memory loss, intestinal disorders and skin rashes, which have combined to ruin careers, Binns said.
"These sick veterans have no effective treatments, but remedies can likely be discovered with the right research, according to the Institute of Medicine," Binns stated in his letter to Gibson, Nabors, Miller, the Senate VA Committee chairman, Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and others.
Senior VA officials have rebuffed research about Gulf War-related illnesses and have pushed the idea that affected Gulf War veterans suffer from a condition termed chronic multisymptom illness, which is caused by psychological stress.
"They didn't get sick from stress," Binns said. "It wasn't a very stressful war, as wars go."
Approximately 37 percent of the 700,000 U.S. troops who deployed to the war suffer chronic multisymptom illness, according to "Gulf War Update," a VA newsletter issued in March of this year.
That rate is three times higher than Gulf War-era veterans who were not deployed,according to a survey of 15,000 deployed Gulf War vets and 15,000 non-deployed Gulf War-era vets. However, a clear linkage to the war is unclear, according to the newsletter.
"Research from VA and others suggest these symptoms may be associated with many factors, including a range of environmental and chemical hazards that carry potential health risks, but the exact cause or causes remain unknown," it says.
Yet VA statistics that were provided to Congress in the spring show that 11,216 Gulf War-related illness claims have been granted and that 80 percent of such claims are denied.
Binns points to a 2010 report by the Institute of Medicine, which is an independent, non-profit organization that provides advice on medical matters. Its report, titled "Gulf War and Health," states that there is "sufficient evidence" of an association between deployment to the Gulf War and chronic multisymptom illness and that it's likely a result of interplay of genetic and environmental factors. It also states that the illness cannot be reliably ascribed to any know psychiatric disorder.
VA officials have shown a lack of institutional and scientific integrity, said Stewart Hickey, national executive director of American Veterans, and Richard Weidman, executive director of policy and government affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America.
VA officials have slated research studies, failed to publish critical research results and reported false and misleading information to Congress, they wrote in a letter to Gibson on July 16.
"VA's treatment of Gulf War veterans for the last 23 years exemplifies what is wrong with the agency," Weidman told The Republic.
"One of the key litmus tests for whether the administration, and the new VA leadership, is serious about fixing the agency, or whether they are going to do just enough to dial down the complaint volume, will be whether they are willing to finally, honestly acknowledge the health problems that have decimated this entire generation of Gulf War veterans."
Gulf War vet Anthony Hardie of Bradenton, Fla., served on the Gulf War committee from 2005 until he and another Gulf War veteran resigned in protest in 2012. He remains with the veterans advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense and other organizations.
Hardie resigned after VA staff ignored recommendations that the committee offered after analyzing other research and consulting with dozens of scientists and veterans during an 18-month period, he said. VA employees gutted the panel's report, including references to the term "Gulf War illness," Hardie said.
"VA staff had gone back to their old ways of ignoring what was being recommended," said Hardie, a French speaker who served as a liaison with coalition forces during the Gulf War.
"It was very clear that VA staff was intent on not listening to recommendations, were intent on not developing treatments for Gulf War illness, and the VA secretary was very clearly asleep at the switch," said Hardie, who counts himself among those suffering from Gulf War-related illness.
"We were doing all this work for nothing," he said.
Hardie remains hopeful that McDonald will attend the Gulf War committee's upcoming meetings, which would stand in contrast to the stance taken by his predecessor, former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who never attended a meeting. Meetings generally are held two or three times a year.
By the numbers
First Gulf War veterans deployed to the war zone report higher instances of certain illnesses than veterans of the same era who were not deployed.
Deployed — 27.4 percent
Non-deployed — 18.1 percent
Irritable bowel syndrome
Deployed — 19.1 percent
Non-deployed — 12.6 percent
Chronic fatigue syndrome
Deployed — 18.2 percent
Non-deployed — 9 percent
Deployed — 10.3 percent
Non-deployed — 7.9 percent
Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
ON THE BEAT
Paul Giblin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. He covers federal agencies and the military.
How to reach him