Mr. Anthony Hardie
Mr. Chairman and Distinguished Members of the House Subcommittee on Health, thank you for holding today’s hearing on Gulf War Exposures and highlighting the enduring national significance of these issues. It is truly an honor and a privilege to be here today, and I hope to help voice some of the concerns of the many who are not here to share in this privilege.
On January 17, 1991, much of America watched Operation Desert Storm unfold on their evening news, decisively ending the many long months of the massed troops’ watchful waiting under Operation Desert Shield. Six weeks of aerial bombing – interspersed with cross-border incursions and the Battle of Khafji and followed by a three-day ground war – and the Persian Gulf War of 1991 was over.
But for many of the nearly 697,000 troops who served, our overarching Gulf War experience had only just begun.
For Members of the Committee who may not be familiar, Gulf War troops were exposed to a host of toxic exposures experienced, often in combination, including: multiple low-level exposures to chemical warfare agents, including from bombed munitions factories and detonated munitions bunkers; experimental drugs mandated without informed consent like Pyridostigmine Bromide (PB) pills intended to help survive nerve agent exposure; inhalation of the incredibly high levels of micro-fine particulate matter from the Kuwaiti oil well fire plumes; experimental vaccines like anthrax, botulinum, and others; inhaled and ingested depleted uranium (DU) particulate matter; smoke from the daily burning of trash and feces; multiple pesticides; and petroleum products and byproducts.
For some of us who developed lasting health effects from this veritable toxic soup of hazardous exposures, it came while still in the Gulf. For others, it did not come until sometime after returning home.
Hearing this list of exposures, most people would find it of no surprise that so many thousands of Gulf war veterans became ill, or that so many remain ill and injured today. And it should be no surprise that so many have developed diagnosable, serious conditions like ALS, MS, and others.
What is stunning is that sixteen years later, there are still few tangible results that might improve the health of those who became ill and remain ill. And we still have little information of any value to provide to Gulf War veterans or their health care providers that might help to improve Gulf War veterans’ health.
Years were squandered disputing whether Gulf war veterans were really ill, studying stress, reporting that what was wrong with Gulf War veterans was the same as after every war. An incredible amount of effort was put into disproving the claims of countless veterans testifying before Congress about chemical and other exposures. Some of that negative effort appears to continue even today.
It is stunning that after nearly two decades, we still have little information to provide to Gulf War veterans who remain ill from their service.
It is true that VA does still have an open door for Gulf War veterans to be seen at VA medical facilities.
However, being seen is not the same thing as being treated.
The VA’s Office of Public Health and Environmental Hazards website contains little information that might be of any use to ill Gulf War veterans or their health providers. Much of the information provided is dated between 1996 and 2001, years before the more recent research discoveries related to ill Gulf War veterans that affirm what Gulf War veterans have been saying all along – that their Gulf War exposures are what made them ill.
In July 2006, the VA’s “Gulf War Review” included an article entitled, “Straight from the Source: VA’s Environmental Agents Service is Serious About Communicating With Veterans.” That issue, a year ago, was the last issue published.
For Gulf War veterans like me whose “Kuwaiti Cough” has never left after having coughed up thick black sputum while still in the Gulf and for several weeks after returning home, the report related to oil fire smoke and petroleum notes on the Office of Public Health and Environmental Hazards website would seem to be of particular interest. Perhaps its lack of usable content, indicative of the lack of attention being paid to these issues, is at least in part related to the fact that its stated principal author was not a leading scientist, but instead a community college communications/journalism student Summer Intern.
I have heard from countless other Gulf War veterans that they, like many
veterans before them, have stopped going to the VA, or have simply given up, and have done their best to adapt to the substantial lifestyle changes required by their disabilities, which may or may not be compensated for these disabling conditions incurred in service.
In addition to the commonly recognized long wait times and difficulties in the claims process, Gulf War veterans have had unique and special challenges due to the currently medically undiagnosable nature of many of their health conditions. In May, a VA report showed that only one in four undiagnosed illness claims for Gulf War veterans has been approved. And, at a Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs conference in January on Gulf War veterans’ illnesses, we heard service officers telling their success stories of alternative methods in achieving service-connection for ill Gulf War veterans that bypassed the near impossibilities of undiagnosed illness claims. Clearly there remains much to be done to improve the disability claims process for ill Gulf War veterans.
On a more positive note, I was encouraged during last week’s meeting of the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses on which I serve to hear Dr. Robert Haley and his team describe their research goals of identifying diagnostic criteria for ill Gulf War veterans. Success in achieving these goals should finally help to pave the way for effective treatments.
And I remain encouraged by current efforts in the U.S. Senate to provide funding for Gulf War health research within the Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program budget focused on treatments that may aid ill Gulf War veterans.
The five-point statement of goals that came from Gulf War veterans more than a decade ago still holds true today: Gulf War veterans deserved then and deserve now an assurance that an exhaustive investigation has been fulfilled to identify all possible Gulf War exposures; that appropriate scientific research is promptly completed to connect known or potential Gulf War exposures with health outcomes; that medical treatment is based on that scientific research; that compensation is provided to those veterans left disabled by their military service if the health conditions cannot be reversed; and that every effort is made to ensure that never again can what happened to Gulf War veterans be allowed to happen.
For the thousands of living, ill Gulf War veterans, it is time to make good on our nation’s enduring promise of caring for those who have borne the battle, and their widows, and their orphans.