RAC – Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses

The Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses (RAC-GWVI, orRAC” as it has commonly been known) was mandated in federal legislation signed into law on Veterans’ Day, November 11, 1998 [1].

The law required the RAC be constituted not later than January 1, 1999 by the head of the federal department or agency designated by the President, as specified under earlier law (1992), “to coordinate all research activities undertaken or funded by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government on the health consequences of military service in the Persian Gulf theater of operations during the Persian Gulf War.”  The 1992 law authorized the President to redesignate that coordinating organization at will.[2]

After extended delays and remedial advocacy, VA Secretary Anthony Principi filed the RAC’s first charter on January 23, 2002, and appointed its charter members. The charter conformed to the authorizing law when it made the RAC’s overarching purpose clear:

“The guiding principle for the work of the Committee shall be the premise that the fundamental goal of Gulf War-related government research is to ultimately improve the health of ill Gulf War veterans...

The RAC’s duties were also made clear in Secretary Principi’s initial RAC charter:

“The Committee shall review all proposed federal research plans, initiatives, procurements, grant programs, and other activities in support of research projects on Gulf War-associated illnesses and assess the individual projects and the overall effectiveness of government research to answer the central questions on the nature, causes, and treatments of Gulf War-associated illnesses.”

As opening comments at the RAC’s first meeting on April 11, 2002, then-Chairman James H. Binns opened by saying, “The [VA] Secretary expected the Committee to work with scientific excellence in mind.”  As shown in the minutes of that meeting, Binns emphasized the language of the charter: “The charter charged them with measuring federal research efforts against the standard of improving the health of Gulf War veterans.”

RAC’s Work

The RAC began its work diligently, releasing an interim report in 2002, the year of its creation, and a comprehensive, 143-page report in 2004.

The RAC’s release of its seminal 2008 report made international headlines as the first declaration by a U.S. governmental entity that Gulf War Illness was real, was likely the result of specific toxic exposures, and that treatments could likely be found.

RAC Protests and VA Response

After a decade of work and and the RAC’s recommendations to the VA were increasingly unheeded, the members of the RAC grew increasingly concerned. At its June 2012 meeting in Boston, the RAC’s members unanimously voted in support of a “no confidence” resolution, “in the ability or demonstrated intention of VA staff to formulate and execute an effective VA Gulf War illness research program.”

The VA’s response was threefold.

First, while an afternoon teleconference to discuss the RAC’s next major report was allowed the following February, 2013, the RAC was prevented from holding a regular meeting for nearly a year.

In May 2013, just a few weeks prior to the RAC’s next full meeting in June, VA gutted the RAC’s charter.  Among the removed provisions were those directing the RAC to evaluate the effectiveness of all federal Gulf War-related research and to measure its effectiveness against the standard of improving the health of Gulf War veterans.

Finally, the VA moved to remove all of the RAC’s members, but not before Gulf War veterans on the panel led a walk-out and resigned in protest to call attention to the issue of VA ignoring the RAC’s recommendations.  [Army Times, VA Gulf War panel members walk out to protest changes, June 8, 2013]

The remaining RAC members were allowed to finalize the RAC 2014 report while new members were added and existing members rotated off the panel.

The Gulf War Illness researchers on the RAC were ultimately replaced by researchers without Gulf War Illness expertise, with only two exceptions.  The ill Gulf War veteran advocates on the panel were replaced with Gulf War veterans not known to have Gulf War Illness or be Gulf War Illness advocates, with only one exception.  And, the number of members on the panel was increased, further diluting the voices and votes of the Gulf War Illness researchers and ill Gulf War veteran advocate.

RAC Reports

The RAC issued three major reports* and was instrumental in preparing the first-ever research strategic plan for Gulf War Illness for VA.

From newest to oldest, the RAC’s major reports include:

*NOTE: As of February 2020, the RAC had not issued a major scientific report since the 2014 report.

Strategic Plan for Gulf War Research

The first-ever strategic plan for Gulf War Illness research was developed jointly by members of the RAC and National Research Advisory Committee (NRAC) and then approved by both full committees:

It is not clear if an updated strategic plan has been made public by VA.


END NOTES:

[1] Veterans Programs Enhancement Act of 1998, Title I, Section 104; P.L. 105-368, Title I, Sec. 104; 38 U.S.C. §527 note.

[2] P.L. 102-585, Veterans Health Care Act of 1992, Title VII, Persian Gulf War Veterans Heath Status Act, Section 707; 38 U.S.C. §527 note.