Veterans want Pentagon relieved of gulf war research

Congress asked to shift studies of illness to NIH

January 19, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The nation's largest grass-roots Persian Gulf war veterans group has asked Congress to turn over the reins of medical research on gulf war illnesses to an independent body, saying the Pentagon's efforts are biased and designed to minimize liability - not help ailing veterans.

In a report released this week, the National Gulf War Resource Center said the Pentagon has not "produced credible scientific explanations or meaningful treatment protocols for the tens of thousands of sick Gulf War veterans who continue to struggle to piece their lives back together."

The Washington, D.C., group, which represents dozens of gulf war veterans groups, said the work should be placed in the hands of the National Institutes of Health.

"Only a body fully independent of the military and veterans affairs medical establishments will have the full trust and confidence of America's wounded Gulf War warriors," the report said.

The 23-page report also criticized the Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides medical treatment and disability payments to veterans: "Because of the VA's narrow interpretation of existing laws governing compensation, many ill Gulf War veterans are being denied compensation on spurious grounds."

Patrick Eddington, the group's executive director, said many VA doctors are incorrectly diagnosing illnesses of veterans based on one or two symptoms unrelated to their cluster of gulf war ailments.

That means a veteran cannot qualify for compensation for "undiagnosed illnesses," a special category of claims set up by Congress for gulf war veterans, Eddington said.

Barb Goodno, a Pentagon spokeswoman, declined to comment, saying she hadn't reviewed the document.

The Pentagon's investigations into gulf war illnesses won praise recently from a presidential oversight board.

In a report in December, the board said the Pentagon "worked diligently to fulfill the president's directive to leave no stone unturned in investigating the possible causes of Gulf War illnesses."

Terry Jemison, a VA spokesman, said the agency has made it easier in recent years for gulf war veterans to receive medical care at its facilities and is committed to giving them the best care possible.

He said the agency applies the same rules to evaluating gulf war claims as other wartime claims. It may also provide compensation for undiagnosed illnesses under a 1994 federal law, he said.

Jemison said the Institute of Medicine is investigating whether toxic agents in the Persian Gulf region can be linked to illnesses of gulf war veterans - just as it looks for links between exposure to Agent Orange and diseases reported by Vietnam veterans.

About 700,000 men and women served in the 1991 gulf war. More than 186,000 veterans have sought treatment for injuries they said they sustained there, the gulf war resource center said.

Symptoms reported by gulf war veterans span a wide range: short- and long-term memory loss, severe fatigue, chronic muscle and joint pain, gastrointestinal disorders and severe rashes.

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