Witness Testimony of Mr. James Binns, Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, Chairman, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, for the past five years, it has been my privilege to chair the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses. This public advisory body of distinguished scientists and veterans is mandated by Congress and appointed by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Its membership includes leading experts in the field, a former president of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, and the head of the CDC Neurotoxicology Research Laboratory. Dr. Steele (to my right) is a member and an epidemiologist who has devoted the past ten years of her career to the full time study of Gulf War illnesses, most recently as scientific director of the Committee. The Committee’s statutory mission is to review research studies and plans related to the illnesses suffered by veterans of the 1991 Gulf War.
Dr. Steele will provide highlights of the Committee’s scientific findings. I will address the status of federal research activities.
Gulf War illnesses remain a major unmet veterans’ health problem. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs most recent study, 25% of Gulf War veterans suffer from chronic multisymptom illness over and above the rate in other veterans of the same era. This confirms five earlier studies showing similar rates.
Thus, sixteen years after the war, one in four of those who served – 175,000 veterans – remain seriously ill. And there are currently no effective treatments.
Gulf War veterans also suffer from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, at double the rate of other veterans of the same era.
The veterans whom you have heard today are not exceptional cases. They are representative casualties of the 1991 Gulf War.
The federal government has spent over $300 million on Gulf War illnesses research, roughly one-third by VA and two-thirds by DoD. Some of that research was productive, as you will hear from Dr. Steele. Much of that money, however, was misspent on the false theory that these illnesses were caused by psychological stress. As late as 2003, 57% of new VA Gulf War illnesses research was directed at psychological stress.
This emphasis on stress was part of an overall effort to portray these illnesses as nothing unusual, the kind of thing that happens after every war, rather than the result of toxic exposures particular to the Gulf War. Very little money was invested in treatment research.
I am pleased to report that a dramatic change for the better has taken place in the direction of VA research. Following our Committee’s 2004 report, then VA Secretary Principi announced that VA would no longer fund studies based on stress. Secretary Nicholson appointed new leadership at the VA Office of Research and Development, and has placed most of VA’s Gulf War illnesses research program at the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center, the leading site for Gulf War illnesses research. Congress added $15 million to the VA research budget for this program, which is just getting underway. I am extremely pleased to see VA Gulf War illnesses research in the hands of scientists committed to solving the problem and fully funded at the level recommended by the Research Advisory Committee.
At the same time that these positive developments have taken place, however, other key VA officials continue to minimize these illnesses at every opportunity. For example, a “fact sheet” provided in recent weeks to three United States Senators baldly asserted that “Gulf War veterans suffer from a wide range of common illnesses, which might be expected in any group of veterans their age.” That is utter hogwash.
This fact sheet is the work of the VA Office of Public Health and Environmental Hazards, which is testifying before you today. It is also the VA office charged with implementing Congress’s mandate that VA contract with the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine to prepare reports on the association between toxic exposures in the Gulf War and health effects for use in benefits determinations. For seven years, these reports have been structured to restrict the scientific information considered in their conclusions, in express violation of the statute.
This government manipulation of science and violation of law to devalue the health problems of ill veterans is something I would not have believed possible in the United States of America until I took this job. Until this practice is stopped, the products of Gulf War illnesses research will be distorted, misleading the Secretary, Congress, veterans’ doctors, and the scientific community.
Dr. Lawrence Deyton, who now directs this office and who will speak to you later this morning, assumed his position relatively recently and did not initiate these practices. I urge Dr. Deyton to order these misleading activities terminated and previous IOM reports re-done in conformity with the statute.
The largest sponsor of federal Gulf War illnesses research is the Department of Defense. Historically, DoD has funded approximately two-thirds of Gulf War illnesses research, in excess of $30 million annually. Since the start of the current war, however, this program has been eliminated.
In FY06, Congress initiated a new pilot program for Gulf War illnesses research at DoD. This innovative program gives first priority to pilot studies of existing treatments already approved for other illnesses, and so offers the possibility of identifying treatments that could be put to immediate use. It complements the VA/University of Texas research program that is focused on understanding the basic science. It is open to all researchers, inside or outside of government, through peer-reviewed competition, and is administered by the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program.
Its initial solicitation last fall received eighty proposals – compared to only two treatments studied in the entire previous history of Gulf War illnesses research. Only a small fraction of these proposals can be funded within the $5 million FY06 pilot program, but the response demonstrates the interest of the scientific community in finding treatments to improve the health of Gulf War veterans, as well as current and future military personnel and civilians at risk of chemical attack.
Yet DoD has again excluded this promising program from its proposed FY08 budget. Its future depends on the success of bipartisan efforts in the House and Senate to add it to the DoD budget at the $30 million level consistent with the recommendations of the Research Advisory Committee and historic funding commitments.
Mr. Chairman and Members of the committee, in recent months this country has renewed its obligation to care for the health of veterans following their return home from war. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been appropriated to address the health problems of currently returning veterans, and rightfully so. But it is now time – in fact, long past time – to address the serious health problems of 175,000 veterans of the last war who remain ill as a result of their service.
Will we follow the example of the current war and address them now, while there is still hope they can live out their lives in better health? Or will we follow the example of Vietnam and Agent Orange, and admit the problem only as they are dying? The answer begins with you and your colleagues.