Plan would compensate sick gulf vets

June 10, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration is embracing a "revolutionary" plan to compensate sick veterans of the Persian Gulf war even without direct evidence that their illnesses are related to military service.

"This legislation is revolutionary. We have never before provided payment for something we're not even certain exists," said Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown, who nonetheless wholeheartedly endorsed the plan at a congressional hearing yesterday.

Hundreds of veterans have complained of a mysterious range of maladies -- called Desert Storm Syndrome -- that they believe are war-related. Complaints, in their order of frequency, include fatigue, skin rash, muscle and joint pain, headache, loss of memory, shortness of breath and gastrointestinal and respiratory symptoms.

As the political stakes and media attention on the veterans have increased, many members of Congress have taken up the issue, holding hearings to announce their own sometimes contradictory findings about the mysterious illnesses and adding weight to suggestions of a Pentagon cover-up.

Three government departments are studying the illnesses, but neither they nor civilian scientists have come up with a cause that explains the various symptoms. In April, a panel of distinguished scientists assembled by the National Institutes of Health reported that no link could be made between the conditions and the war without better data. Members suggested further study.

The administration's endorsement significantly raises the chances of passage for this compensation plan or something similar. It was introduced by Rep. G. V. "Sonny" Montgomery, D-Miss., the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.

Mr. Montgomery caused friction with veterans groups when he blocked legislation in the 1980s to compensate Vietnam veterans who believed their cancers were caused by exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange. It finally passed in 1991.

His plan calls for a temporary, three-year compensation program that could be extended by Congress if science still hasn't unraveled the mystery. Veterans would be eligible if their symptoms developed within a year of the war.

Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., who has challenged Mr. Montgomery's chairmanship in the past and who pressed for Agent Orange compensation, wants an even more liberal plan.

Mr. Evans' bill, which is supported by the American Legion and other veterans groups, would not have a time limit on compensation. Veterans could qualify if they showed symptoms as late as three years after the war's end. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., is sponsoring a similar measure in the Senate.

Congress traditionally is reluctant to reject veterans' legislation, but the unusual nature of this plan could attract more criticism than usual.

"No one wants to see veterans deprived of help they really need, but it might be a good idea to find out what the problem is before the government gets out its checkbook," said Pete Sepp, director of media relations for the National Taxpayers' Union, an anti-spending group.

Estimates of the cost of Mr. Montgomery's plan are fuzzy, but Mr. Brown insisted that the VA could pay for it without more money.

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