“Delay, deny, wait until we die.”
That “little saying,” a Gulf War veteran [*who is the author of 91outcomes.com and the National Chair & Director of Veterans for Common Sense*] recently told an interviewer for the National Public Radio program “Here and Now,” is what you’re likely to encounter when you walk into a Veterans Administration hospital complaining of debilitating symptoms from your combat experience 30 years ago. The symptoms almost surely result from your exposure to pesticides used in Kuwait or air-borne toxins from massive open-air pits, some larger than a football field, where trash and human waste were burning. Anti-nerve agents you and your comrades were ordered to take also might be culprits.
“It’s all in your head,” you’re likely to hear, even though the symptoms may include chronic diarrhea, constant pain and fatigue, a persistent cough or serious breathing problems. Gulf War vets also are suffering from memory and neurological issues. They’re dying from lung cancer. No matter. The VA, claiming the absence of sufficient scientific evidence, denies more than 80 percent of claims related to what has come to be called Gulf War Illness, according to a 2017 analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The same report noted that the VA estimates 44 percent of veterans who served in the Persian Gulf during 1990-1991 have medical issues related to the illness, and thousands of veterans who have since served in the Global War on Terror have reported similar conditions.
It seems we never learn that soldiers in combat sacrifice their lives for their country, even when they survive bombs and bullets. We owe them not only the best care available but also an inclination to trust that there is, in fact, a connection between what they experienced in wartime and what they’re enduring today.
The comedian Jon Stewart has become a spokesperson for service members dealing with Gulf War Illness, just as he became an outspoken advocate for firefighters and other first responders who plunged into the lethal, smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
“War after war after war, we treat them as expendable,” Stewart told the Washington Post in an interview last fall. “And when they come home, we’re done with them. If an enemy did this to us, we’d … bomb them into oblivion. We did it to ourselves and we’re ignoring it.”
If the response to Gulf War Illness sounds like a dreary rerun, it’s because it is. For years, Vietnam War veterans exposed to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange had to combat similar levels of skepticism from the VA. Fortunately, things have changed for the better for the Vietnam vets. Today the VA presumes certain conditions are related to exposure based on deployment history rather than relying on veterans to prove they encountered the chemical at a certain place.
The estimated 3.5 million veterans of the Gulf War or the post-9/11 Global War on Terror who were potentially exposed to burn pits and pesticides must still prove any illness is connected to their service. It creates a hurdle that many affected veterans can’t get past, despite efforts by Congress over the years to improve their care.
Retired Marine Capt. David K. Winnett of New Braunfels [Texas], a disabled Gulf War veteran who has worked as a review panelist for congressionally directed medical research programs, has seen the struggle up close.
“On one hand you have Congress allocating millions of dollars to the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs each year for Gulf War Illness research while another arm of the government (the VA) continues to make it almost impossible for veterans of that war to have their illnesses service-connected,” he told the editorial board Wednesday. “I’ve been at both ends of the spectrum — a Veteran suffering from Gulf War Illness and an eight-year programmatic review panelist. … The bureaucratic BS needs to end."
Legislation co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, and U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., an emergency room physician, could signal a breakthrough. If their bill passes, the VA would drop the burden of proof and presume veterans with certain conditions had been exposed if they had service medals from either the Gulf War or the Global War on Terror or had been deployed to one of 34 countries named in the bill
U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., also has expressed support for toxic exposure-related legislation. Bost is the ranking Republican on the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Recently, advocates for Gulf War and Global War on Terror veterans have found another powerful advocate in the White House. President Joe Biden has said he suspects toxic exposure may have been the cause of his son Beau’s fatal brain cancer. The younger Biden served with the Delaware Army National Guard at Balad Air Base in Iraq, where the U.S. military burned an estimated 140 tons of waste daily in open-air pits. He was diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma.
“Eighteen months he lived, knowing he was going to die,” Biden has said of his son, who died in 2015 at age 46.
During his presidential campaign, Biden promoted a plan to expand the list of presumptive health conditions to include exposure to burn pits and other environmental toxins, extend the claim eligibility period from one to five years, and to pump $300 million into research to better understand the impact of traumatic brain injury and toxic exposures.
“Burn pits are our generation’s Agent Orange,” Ruiz says. “We cannot wait or delay or deny. …”
The Gulf War ended 30 years ago last month. Later this year will mark 20 years since the first deployments following 9/11. Too many veterans are still suffering. Too many are dying. It’s past time we paid attention.
It’s time for action. We urge Biden, who ends his speeches by asking God to protect our troops, to get busy assisting in that endeavor.
The Houston Chronicle Editorial Board