Washington – A top Pentagon health official conceded Tuesday that conducting physical examinations of troops after military deployments might help prevent a recurrence of gulf war illness.
William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, also told a congressional hearing that the Pentagon’s brief health questionnaire, which it plans to give to troops as a substitute for physical exams, might not be adequate.
“I’ve already initiated an effort to reassess this survey to see if it collects all the information,” he said.
The hearing was before a House Government Reform subcommittee looking into the health care of deployed forces, and the lessons learned from the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
With about 300,000 troops now in the gulf or on their way, the military has been criticized recently for failing to follow a 1997 law that requires medical screenings of troops before and after deployment.
The Kansas City Star reported this month that the military was conducting neither physical or mental examinations, nor blood sampling, as Congress required.
“What’s so difficult about all of this?” asked Rep. William Janklow, a South Dakota Republican. “We’re talking about elementary data? What is so mysterious about giving everyone a physical exam?”
Throughout most of the hearing, Winkenwerder insisted the Pentagon was doing the appropriate amount of medical testing.
Winkenwerder said the questionnaire would provide a baseline for medical information about the troops. Certain answers could trigger more detailed questions, he said, adding that “hands-on” physical examinations provided limited value.
He said that the blood samples from the troops were part of the military’s standard test for HIV, and that samples older than a year would not be used.
“We feel we are following the law and doing it in a way that makes sense,” Winkenwerder said.
Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican who leads the subcommittee and has been investigating gulf war illness for a decade, said Congress intended otherwise.
“From my standpoint, you’re not meeting the letter of the law, clearly you’re not meeting the spirit of the law,” Shays said.
Gulf war illness became the collective name for a variety of unexplained illnesses that have plagued thousands of veterans. Over the years they have reported such ailments as skin rashes, headaches, loss of motor skills, memory loss, and equilibrium problems.
Government agencies and medical experts, looking for causes, have investigated the malady. They have covered the gamut: the release of chemical agents when Iraq’s stockpiles were burned after the war; materials used in military equipment to protect against such agents; even vaccines to guard against those deadly agents. Other potential culprits are pollution from burning oil wells, and desert parasites and diseases.
Since no cause was ever established, veterans battled for years to get medical treatment and compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Stephen Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, a nonprofit veterans service group, predicted that since the military was still not collecting the medical data, veterans of the current war would have just as much trouble.
“The public law is being ignored,” Robinson said, “thereby setting up mystery illnesses to present themselves after the war.”
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