Veterans’ advocacy groups say the blood tests could have helped the Pentagon track down the causes behind the variety of ailments, collectively known as Gulf war syndrome, that affect about 100,000 of the 700,000 veterans who served in the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait.
Sens. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, and Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, contend the medical tests are required under a law that went into effect in 1998.
Mr. Reed said funds for the blood sampling were available from a discretionary fund within the Defense Department, and he sent a letter to William Winkenwerder, assistant defense secretary for health affairs, on Jan. 24, requesting the Pentagon use $1.5 million from a $50 million discretionary fund established to support medical research, including Gulf war illnesses, to pay for the tests.
“We should provide our departing servicemen and women with every safeguard that our nation can muster,” Mr. Reed wrote.
Mr. Winkenwerder’s office has not yet replied to Mr. Reed’s office.
“We’re still waiting for Mr. Winkenwerder to say yes or no. Every time we talk to these folks they say a response is forthcoming,” said Adam Bozzi, a spokesman for Mr. Reed.
A defense spokesman said Mr. Winkenwerder was never notified of the letter.
“It’s kind of a busy time. Maybe you don’t have a feel for how much congressional correspondence comes in and out of here every day,” said Austin Camacho, with the deployment health support directorate.
Mr. Reed expressed his frustration at the DoD’s lack of response.
“I’m disappointed. This is common sense,” Mr. Reed said. “I just don’t think they have a good answer for why they haven’t followed the law, conducted predeployment physicals, and why they seem to be less than enthusiastic about collecting this data.”
Mr. Kerry on March 6 asked the General Accounting Office to start an investigation into the Defense Department’s force health protection plan. The GAO responded and is investigating.
Roughly 100,000 of the 700,000 U.S. veterans who served in the 1991 Gulf war have reported chronic pain or illness, with about 30 percent of that number requiring hospitalization. Symptoms include headaches, joint pain, fatigue, skin rashes and sores, difficulty concentrating and memory loss, chronic diarrhea, and gastrointestinal trouble. Studies also have shown a higher rate of Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system characterized by muscle weakness, among Gulf war veterans.
Some veterans feel the illnesses could be related to stress, the vaccinations service members receive and exposure to chemicals like sarin and radioactive materials like depleted uranium. But no one is certain of the causes.
“The mystery of the Gulf war is that there was no data collected. If there was, we would have been able to rule in and rule out why soldiers were getting ill. Now, it’s 12 years later and we’re making the same mistakes,” said Steve Robinson, a Gulf war veteran and executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center.
“After the debacle of the first Gulf war, why they would risk not answering this question now is beyond me. ‘We don’t know’ is not going to cut it this time,” said Mr. Robinson. “If people do get sick, they won’t be able to throw up their hands this time.”
Researchers proposed to take blood samples before and after troops were vaccinated, and then compare those samples with samples taken upon their return and for four years afterward. The Department of Defense currently has no such study or system of testing in place, despite having spent $212 million for 224 scientific studies on the subject.
The current requirement is that each deployed service member must have had HIV testing in the last 12 months, and the blood serum from that test is kept on file.
The samples from the study would have provided baseline data for a group of researchers led by retired Brig. Gen. Richard Valente, who is also chief of the Rhode Island Gulf War Commission.
Dr. Paul Levine, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at George Washington University, is the lead investigator on the research team. Much of the work the tests are based on was done in the late ’90s by Dr. David Haines, a Fairfax epidemiologist who served as a chemical officer during the Gulf war and has suffered from psoriasis and other symptoms.
The tests by Gen. Valente’s group would not have prevented sicknesses. They reportedly would have provided a set of reliable data that medical researchers could use to find causes of the mysterious illnesses.
The Department of Defense came under fire recently for not complying with a 1998 law requiring that a medical screening be conducted on each deploying service member. Instead of drawing blood samples before and after deployment, the DoD issues a questionnaire to each service member.