A US Senate commitee has heard that sick veterans of the first Gulf War are still being poorly treated and their illnesses dismissed as stress just as large numbers of troops returning from the latest conflict are reporting "ill-defined" illnesses.
At a hearing on Tuesday medical experts and senators accused the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department of failing to take the illnesses suffered by veterans of the 1991 Gulf War seriously, and not doing enough to help them.
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee heard from experts who testified that Gulf War illnesses are real, serious and widespread among U.S. troops sent to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi forces.
For those thousands of veterans dealing with mysterious ailments the road to recognition of their suffering has been full of obstacles. In September 2006 The Institute of Medicine, which provides advice on medical issues to U.S. policymakers, concluded that Gulf War veterans reported far more symptoms of illness than their fellow troops who were not deployed. They stopped short of acknowledging a specific pattern of illness however, which means the existence of Gulf War syndrome is still in question 16 years after the troops returned from the Gulf.
At the hearing the government was criticized from several quarters. Perhaps the harshest criticism came from members of an advisory committee set up by Congress in 1998 to advise the Veterans Affairs Department (VA) on Gulf War illnesses.
The chairman of this committee, James Binns, told those convened that 16 years after the war, 175,000 U.S. veterans, a quarter of all those who served, remain seriously ill, with some even developing neurodegenerative diseases and brain cancer.
Binns went on to chastize Pentagon and VA officials for continuing to "minimize these illnesses at every opportunity and mislead Congress and the scientific community."
Lea Steele, scientific director of Binn's comittee, said veterans with Gulf War illness typically experience some combination of severe headaches, memory and concentration problems, persistent pain, fatigue, gastrointestinal and respiratory problems and unusual skin lesions and rashes. This directly contradicts the government position that there is no consistent pattern of symptoms amongst veterans (discounting Gulf War syndrome). The government maintains that veterans may indeed be sick but that those who are have seperate and distinct conditions which need individual assessment, diagnosis and treatment.
It was revealed that the US government has spent more than $300m on Gulf War illness research but that only two studies have been conducted into potential treatment with negligible results.
Binns is quoted as saying that "Much of the money was misspent on the false theory that these illnesses were caused by psychological stress, part of a deliberate effort to downplay these illnesses as the sort of thing that happens after every war, rather than the result of toxic exposures."
A number of senators including Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina (Rep.) and Sen. Patty Murray (Dem.) gave their input stating that there was widespread agreement within the Veterans Affairs committee that Gulf War illnesses are real and accusing the Pentagon of having a "long and shameful history" of failing to help the ill veterans.
Along with all the testimony regarding the treatment of troops made ill by service in the first Gulf War, the hearing included a statement from Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, a Pentagon health official, who said 15 to 20 percent of US troops returning from the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were coming home with "ill-defined" medical symptoms that defy standard diagnosis, as was the case with Gulf War vets. The term "ill-defined illness" is one that is also applied to conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), fibromyalgia (FMS) and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), which a number of those involved in research believe overlap with Gulf War illnesses or "Gulf War syndrome".
The good news for Veterans of these latest conflicts is that they will receive healthcare, unlike those veterans of the first Gulf War who are still dimissed as suffering from stress by their physicians. A 5-year-old VA pamphlet providing guidance to doctors on Gulf War illnesses still emphasizes stress as a cause, despite recommendations to the contrary from James Binn's committee.
Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are now guaranteed Veterans Affairs health care and treatment for two years after they return and leave the military.
It can only be hoped that veterans of the first Gulf War will begin to see more care and that their experiences won't be repeated in future. It is also clear from details revealed at this hearing that much more research into Gulf War illnesses is required.