Gulf War Veterans: The VA Takes Important First Steps

Last week, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) officially recognized several diseases as linked with deployment to the 1991 Gulf War.

As Gulf War veterans, we applaud the VA’s proposed new regulations that streamline access to disability benefits for Gulf War, Iraq war and Afghanistan war veterans.

More importantly, the VA’s new policy opens access to urgently needed free VA health care for the lingering, disabling health outcomes of these terrible diseases.

The VA’s recent decisions were made possible by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and his Chief of Staff, John Gingrich, a fellow Gulf War veteran. The new regulations, prompted by Gulf War veterans’ advocates and the VA’s internal Gulf War Veterans Task Force, will impact more than 3.3 million people – the 700,000 veterans of the 1991 Gulf War, the 400,000 veterans deployed to Southwest Asia between 1991 and 2001 plus the 2.2 million who deployed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We also applaud the VA’s simultaneous decision to expand approval of veterans’ disability claims for undiagnosed and ill-defined illnesses which affects at least 25 percent, or up to 210,000, of our Gulf War veterans.

After so many years of struggling with illnesses as well as an unyielding, uncaring VA bureaucracy, we know our fellow Gulf War veterans will be relieved at the VA’s change in policy.

As two of a small handful of Gulf War veteran leaders who led and participated in the national effort to pass and implement the “Persian Gulf Veterans Act of 1998,” the law that authorized the VA’s new regulations, we have waited for these and other changes for 19 years, including more than 11 years after the law passed.

That’s why we fought for the bill in 1998, why we continue to fight for new research focused on treatments and why we will continue to fight for more streamlined VA regulations based on known wartime exposures and their known health outcomes.

While we are pleased to see the ice melting at the VA so Gulf War veterans can get the care we sought starting in 1991, we also ask the VA to do more to fix this problem.

For the historical record and for the new VA’s leaders, we hope you understand our cautious optimism:

  • The VA fought against Gulf Research, health care and benefits legislation in 1994 and 1998.
  • After the laws were passed, the VA still fought against implementing them.
  • The VA took four years to create the mandated Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses until caving to fierce Congressional and veteran advocacy.
  • The VA managers intentionally refused to notify about 15,000 Gulf War veterans of a 2001 law that expanded access to benefits and health care.
  • The VA staff manipulated the scope of the Institute of Medicine scientific research reviews to specifically exclude certain types of studies for consideration for health care and benefits. Specifically, the VA excluded lab animal studies linking depleted uranium (DU) with birth defects and cancer.
  • Last year, the VA impeded and then canceled a Congressionally mandated contract for unparalleled Gulf War illness research at the University of Texas Southwestern (UTSW).
  • This year, the VA used the Gulf War research funds designated for UTSW to buy an $11 million piece of lab equipment of dubious value to Gulf War veterans.
  • The VA staff still fight against critical research about toxic exposures and medical treatments, thus impeding our efforts to obtain health care.

Veterans remain highly dismayed at the VA’s quiet denial of health care and benefits based on DU exposure. The VA still uses an obsolete test for DU exposure that is only good for six months after exposure. Yet, the VA tests Gulf War veterans years after exposure, in some cases nearly 20 years later, with the inadequate method. In our view, the VA intentionally creates thousands of potential “false negative” test results.

It is outrageous for the VA to “find” that DU’s heavy metal toxicity and radioactive properties do not cause kidney, liver, lymphatic or brain/neurologic conditions, or a host of cancers. The VA still refused to study the most insidious type of DU exposure: inhaled and ingested DU dust. The VA’s flawed DU policy leaves us wondering if the VA has fully turned over a new leaf.

Here’s what is needed. The VA should expand research to find treatments for Gulf War illness. The VA should amend the new regulations to include veterans of the 1990s war in Somalia, where dozens of our troops returned home with one or more strains of malaria, as well as to veterans of all other overt and covert military deployments, large or small, to all areas where these diseases are endemic.

We believes standards of medical evidence for these illnesses should be relaxed for Special Operations veterans whose only diagnosis may be limited to symptoms observed by a medic within a small unit operating alone in a foreign land.

Finally, we want justice for our Gulf War veterans denied benefits by the VA under the 2001 law. These veterans should be awarded retroactive benefits dating to when the VA improperly denied their war-related disability claims.

If we as a nation are serious about providing justice to our Gulf War veterans, then the new VA has taken a few very positive first steps. In order to prevent future obstruction of health care for veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, then the military has a legal and moral obligation to immediately shut down the use of burn pits overseas. The VA must also provide medical exams to our all returning troops and begin longitudinal studies.

When our government takes these steps, then we will have more confidence it is truly heading in the correct direction.