The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has agreed to re-examine the disability claims for what could turn out to be thousands of veterans of the Gulf War.
The development is the result of intense lobbying by veterans’ advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense (VCS).
In response to the group’s efforts, as many as 210,000 Gulf War veterans suffer from multi-symptom illnesses, and VA Secretary Eric Shineski said in a special interview with The Associated Press that he promises to review Gulf War veterans’ disability claims. The claims may cover suffering from ailments that veterans blame on their war service.
Shineski announced that the department’s Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses Task Force has nearly completed a comprehensive report that will redefine how the VA addresses the pain and suffering of ill veterans who deployed during the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991.
“At VA, we advocate for veterans – it is our overarching philosophy and, in time, it will become our culture,” Shineski said. “Every day we must challenge our assumptions to serve our nation’s veterans.”
The mission of the VA’s Gulf War Task Force is to identify gaps in services as well as opportunities to better serve veterans of the Gulf War. Of the almost 700,000 service members who deployed to Operation Desert Shield in 1990 and Operation Desert Storm in 1991, there have been 300,000 Gulf War veterans with claims decisions, more than 85 percent were granted service connection for at least one condition, and more than 14 percent were not granted service connection for any condition.
“We must learn from the past and take the opportunity to anticipate the future needs of our veterans,” Shineski said. “This new approach is the first step in a still unfolding comprehensive plan of how VA will treat and compensate Veterans of the Gulf War era.”
Paul Sullivan, spokesperson for VCS, is a Desert Storm veteran who returned home with headaches, skin problems and chronic respiratory infections linked by doctors at the VA with his exposure to depleted uranium, radioactive, toxic waste while he was deployed to Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 1991.
Talking about the VA’s plan to re-examine Gulf War veterans’ disability claims, Sullivan said, “All of the veterans who have contacted us so far are pleased that Shineski and [Gulf War Task Force chairman John R.] Gingrich are paying attention to the issues we care about. Now, that said, they want details. We want to know what rules are going to change and when are they going to change.” He said, “The VA’s announcement is a tremendous breakthrough. Now we want details.”
Sullivan said he doesn’t know yet how quickly the VA will process disability claims. “Will the VA review 20,000, 50,000 or 200,000 claims, and when will the VA review the claims and what are the VA’s new rules to review those claims?” In any case, though, he said, “We are pleasantly surprised. We truly are, and we want to work with the VA and get it right this time. We’ve waited too long and have had too many dashed hopes.”
Also, he said he wants to see the VA expand research on depleted uranium to include inhalation exposure and use the best and most sensitive exposure tests. He also urged the VA to fund research by the University of Texas’ Robert Haley. “He has been fighting for us for 15 years and he has produced some of the best published research on Gulf War illness,” Sullivan said.
Here is a timeline describing VCS’ successful advocacy for Gulf War veterans that resulted in the VA’s decision to help Gulf War veterans:
- In September 2008, VCS wrote VA Secretary James Peake about how VA leaders had improperly denied many Gulf War veterans’ disability compensation claims in the early 2000s by failing to tell them about new laws expanding benefits.
- In November 2008, VCS led a national effort to publicize the findings of the VA’s Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ illness.
- In January 2009, VCS urged Congress to investigate how the VA was handling Gulf War illness.
- In May 2009, VCS testified before Congress about the needs and concerns of Gulf War veterans who remain ill due to toxic exposures such as pesticides, oil well fire pollution, experimental pills, experimental anthrax vaccines, depleted uranium and other poisons.
- In February 2010, VCS posted its testimony for a hearing about Gulf War veterans originally scheduled for last week, but postponed until a date to be determined in the next few months. In the testimony, Sullivan, who lives in Austin, Texas, said that it took the VA seven years to determine why he was ill and eight years to get disability benefits approved. Also, in 1998, he helped lead the grassroots effort to press for passage of the Persian Gulf Veterans Act, a law expanding research, health care and benefits for Gulf War veterans.
“The scope of the healthcare and disability challenges facing our Gulf War veterans is real and increasing in size,” Sullivan said. “The VA reports 300,000 of us sought medical care and a similar number filed disability claims. VCS estimates that VA spends up to $4.3 billion per year for our medical care and benefits.”
Then, last week, Shineski made his promise to review Gulf War veterans’ disability claims.
VCS, which was founded by Gulf War veterans in 2002, gave kudos to Shineski for taking bold action on this long-ignored subject. “Too many veterans have suffered for too long without answers, without treatment and without disability benefits,” the group said in a statement. “The VA’s decision is a vital step in the right direction because Gulf War veterans most often need an approved VA disability claim before they can receive VA healthcare.”
The group also said that Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), Rep. Bob Filner (D-California) and Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Arizona) deserve much recognition for their working hard on the issue as well.
The chairman of the Gulf War Task Force is John R. Gingrich, chief of staff at Veterans Affairs and retired Army officer who served during the Gulf War. “Reaching out to Gulf War veterans is not only essential to our transformation of VA, [but] for many of us it is also personal,” Gingrich said. “Having commanded troops in Gulf War, and then witness some of them fall to mysterious illnesses has been very difficult to watch. With this task force, I am hopeful we can provide these men and women a better quality of life.”
The VA’s Gulf War Task Force recommendations build on the findings from the 2008 VA Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illnesses. The Task Force’s recommendations include the following:
- Improve data sharing with the Department of Defense to notify veterans of potential exposures, monitor their long-term health and inform them about decisions regarding additional follow up.
- Improve the delivery of benefits to veterans with Gulf War-related disabilities by reviewing, and if necessary, updating regulations affecting Gulf War veterans and expanding training for VBA examiners on how to administer disability claims with multiple known toxin exposure incidents.
- Improve VA health care for veterans through a new model of interdisciplinary health education and training.
- Increase the number of long-term, veteran-focused studies of veterans to enhance the quality of care that the VA provides.
- Transition from reactive to proactive medical surveillance to help better manage veterans’ potential hazardous exposures.
- Find new treatments for Gulf War veterans through new research.
- Enhance outreach to provide information and guidance to veterans about benefits and services available to them for injuries/illnesses associated with Gulf War service.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) praised the VA’s decision to reconsider the rejected claims of Gulf War veterans.
The “decision by the VA to reconsider the rejected claims of the Gulf War veterans is a long-awaited vindication for those veterans who have suffered unexplained illness as a result of their service during the Gulf War and for those who have advocated on their behalf for benefits, research and treatment,” she said. “I want to commend the VA for finally recognizing Gulf War Illness in our veterans and for the pro-active approach they will take in the future in dealing with these veterans, funding research and granting benefits to those who may have been exposed. For too long, our veterans have had their health concerns dismissed as ‘imaginary’ or ‘stress-related’ first by the Department of Defense and then by the VA. I commend Secretary Shineski for doing the right thing.”
Also, Hutchison said the decision is “a vindication for the medical researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern and elsewhere who have worked tirelessly to identify the connection between the exposure to chemicals and toxins our servicemen and women may have experienced during the first Gulf War and the symptoms and illnesses these veterans suffer from today.
“I fought long and hard for funding for Gulf War Illness research, and to get it I had to fight an entrenched bureaucracy that denied the legitimacy of these veterans’ health issues. No one was a bigger ally of mine nor a greater voice in support of these veterans during those battles than Ross Perot, who has been a tireless supporter and advocate for veterans.”