Report Links Exposures To Gulf War Syndrome

Hartford Courant (Connecticut)

Report Links Exposures To Gulf War Syndrome

The federal government has acknowledged that illnesses afflicting many veterans during the 1991 Persian Gulf War resulted from exposure to hazardous substances, but that hasn’t helped the ill veterans still waiting for benefits, family members say.

Diane Dulka, 44, whose husband, Joseph, died of pancreatic cancer after the war and whose son, Joseph, was born with a cleft pallet, said Friday severely sick veterans are still being denied benefits. In the past few years, Dulka, of Windsor Locks, has tried, often unsuccessfully, she said, to help hundreds of Gulf War veterans whose requests for medical assistance have been rejected by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

After more than seven years of fighting for her widow’s benefits and medical benefits for her son, Dulka obtained the necessary approvals from the VA about five years ago. In the meantime, she became an advocate for other Gulf War veterans, a job she does when she is not working as a paralegal or caring for her 12-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter, Lindsay.

For more than a decade, high-level federal health and military officials, sometimes during testimony under oath before Congress, denied U.S. and allied service members were sick from wartime exposures. The hazards included warfare gases, depleted uranium munitions dust, oil well fires, experimental drugs and vaccines and other pollutants. The Pentagon and federal health agencies have spent more than $100 million on inconclusive Gulf War illness investigations and studies.

On Friday, a federal panel of scientific experts and military veterans, called the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illnesses, concluded progress in understanding Gulf War illnesses has been hampered by a lack of coordination and availability of data within both the VA and the Defense Department.

The panel said there is significant evidence linking chemical warfare exposures to the so-called Gulf War syndrome, a connection Pentagon officials have repeatedly rejected for many years. The research panel, set up by Congress and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, concluded veterans have long term, multi-symptom illnesses that cannot be explained in terms of stress or psychiatric illness that the Pentagon has long favored.

Asked why the report’s findings are being released more than 13 years after the Gulf War ended, Dr. Lea Steele, scientific director for the panel, said, “I don’t know. All the answers already have been found. So the reason is not scientific.” Steele added that there could be only two reasons for not getting the answers until now, scientific or political, and she would not speculate on the political possibility.

Jonathan Perlin, the VA’s acting undersecretary of heath, said, “This report opens up new doors in terms of research, but it doesn’t provide a level of proof” for making specific health claims from the VA.

Other committee findings include:

Thousands of veterans have significant nervous system disorders consistent with low-level exposures to deadly warfare gases, including sarin.

Treatments to improve veterans’ health are still badly needed.

A host of other wartime exposures, including depleted uranium munitions dust from U.S. and British weapons explosions, may also have contributed to the illnesses.

Significant questions about the health of service members’ children and immediate family members and their relationship to soldiers’ exposures remain unanswered.

Veterans’ health has to be closely monitored for disease patterns and causes of death to determine if they are connected to wartime service

And research on these veterans’ illnesses has important implications for other recent wars and the current conflict in Iraq. Some 32,000 service members are said to be sick from hazardous exposures in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The panel estimates the research needed to connect a specific illness to its cause will cost another $15 million.

In the 1991 Gulf War alone, roughly 697,000 U.S. troops served. By last year, 591,000 had left the service and of those more than 26 percent were disabled and receiving medical benefits. Another 11,074 have died, most from illnesses or accidents, after the war. The average age of those service members when they went to war was 36.

Figures from the VA show 182,000 disability claims granted, 27,270 denied and 26,507 still pending, almost 14 years after the end of the war.

Five thousand British service members of the 53,200 who served are reported ill from the first Gulf War with about 2,000 of them awarded war pensions, The Guardian Limited reported. More than 660 have died since the war. Thousands of other allied force soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who became sick from hazardous exposures have also died.

The Defense Department, according to a report issued in June by the Government Accountability Office, underestimated the exposure of chemical warfare agents such as nerve and mustard gas. Defense models of the effects of toxic plumes of chemical agents did not “realistically simulate actual bombings or demolitions,” the GAO report said.

Despite these reports, Dulka said, many veterans and service members from other recent wars are not getting the help they need. Today, Dulka said, she is still trying to help a New Jersey widow get death benefits after her husband died of leukemia in 1994, apparently from constant Gulf War missions hauling fuel from depots. The widow gave birth to a child the year her husband died, and already had two toddlers, said Dulka.

It is well documented with the VA that some soldiers repeatedly exposed to petroleum developed leukemia and they have been approved for VA service-connected disabilities, Dulka said.

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