Hon. Cliff Stearns, a Representative in Congress from the State of Florida
Thank you for holding this hearing. I hope to hear from our panel what kinds of exposures our servicemen and women are encountering in Iraq and Afghanistan in this conflict, the possible connection these exposures may have to debilitating diseases, such as ALS, and the steps the VA has taken to meet this critical health problem.
In the mid-1990s, Gulf War Syndrome became the center of media attention, and the focus of fear by Gulf War veterans and their families. Clusters of undiagnosed, mysterious illnesses, as well as persistent, debilitating, and unexplainable symptoms began to surface. However, under the Clinton Administration, the appointed “Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses,” reported on December 31, 1996 that scientific evidence had not produced “a casual link between symptoms and illnesses reported by Gulf War veterans to exposure [to] pesticides, chemical warfare agents, biological warfare agents, vaccines, …infectious diseases, depleted uranium, oil-well fires and smoke, and petroleum products.” This Advisory Committee also recommended that VA closely examine the relationship between wartime stress and “the broad range of physiological and psychological illnesses currently being reported by Gulf War veterans.”
We now know that some of their illnesses were, as the report indicated, were often the result of psychological stress. Combat stress, a constant risk of warfare, is known to affect the brain, immune system, cardiovascular system, and hormonal responses. Therefore the stress could certainly have been a contributing factor to some of the symptoms and illnesses reported, although not all. Now it is believed by most medical experts that there was no unique Gulf War Syndrome, but rather a number of illnesses arising from numerous causes. The list of possible causes includes, but not limited to, the exposure to: Chemical and biological warfare; Depleted uranium dust; Infectious diseases; Medical measures used to protect against the threat of chemical and biological warfare; Multiple vaccines; Nerve agents too low to cause acute symptoms that can cause chronic adverse effects on nerve and immune systems; Pesticides; Toxic hazards, oil fires, smoke, petroleum products; and Sarin gas.
In the years since the war, a number of Gulf War veterans were developing ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Cancers and impairments of the neurological, circulatory, respiratory, and reproductive systems have been studied for their links to exposures during Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Still, a substantial proportion of veterans’ illnesses remain undiagnosed to this day.
I was here in Congress when we attempted to help these veterans who were suffering under these ailments. In the Veterans Programs Enhancement Act of 1998, Congress required the National Academy of Sciences to review the available scientific evidence and determine whether there is an association between illnesses experienced by Gulf War veterans. Additionally, this law required VA to submit an annual report on the results, status, and priorities of research activities related to the health consequences of military service in the Gulf War to the Committees on Veterans’ Affairs. The law also established VA authority for priority health care to treat illnesses resulting from combat during any period of war after the Gulf War or during any other future period of hostilities.
I look forward to hearing from our panels of witnesses about the progress that the VA has made in providing for these veterans, and also what challenges, if any, veterans are encountering when seeking medical care for their illnesses.