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Gulf War Veterans Groups, DoD Officials Discuss 'Illness'

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

SAN ANTONIO, Texas, Nov. 18, 1996 – Veterans organizations met with DoD officials Nov. 8 in Washington, looking for a solid signal the department is doing all it can to resolve health complaints of Gulf War veterans. They left with commitments from DoD to hire more investigators and spend more money investigating and treating Gulf War illnesses.

The group met with Deputy Defense Secretary John White; Bernard Rostker, head of DoD's Persian Gulf illness investigations; and senior White assistant Scott Harris in a open forum. During the meeting, White said information about chemical weapons demolition by U.S. soldiers at Khamisiyah, Iraq, in March 1991 which became known to DoD only this spring was "a watershed event that changed the focus of our investigation."

Officials said they believe some 20,000 Gulf War veterans may have been exposed to lowlevel fallout from the weapons explosions. In October, DoD began sending certified letters to the veterans advising them of possible exposure to chemical weapons. The department also began following up the letters with a survey seeking information about U.S. military activities in and around Khamisiyah at the end of the Gulf War.

The department also ordered research into the effects of lowlevel exposure and longterm effects of such exposure on humans. White said the goal of this research is not only to determine if and how Gulf War veterans were affected but to better prepare American service members for future deployments to unfamiliar environments.

Learning about weapons destruction at Khamisiyah, White said, raised questions about DoD's investigation: Was the focus correct? Was DoD doing enough to identify and treat the health problems veterans reported? How well was the department communicating its programs to Gulf War veterans? With the new information in hand, he conceded, it was obvious the department was not doing enough.

As a result, White ordered the investigation expanded, adding nearly 100 people to the investigation team and $27 million to its budget. He said the wider investigation would not only ensure all Gulf War veterans know about their rights and benefits but would look to future deployments to unfamiliar environments to ensure the safety of future veterans.

"We want to be absolutely certain Gulf War veterans know we are reaching out to them," White said. He promised an open process and invited continued dialog between veterans groups and DoD.

New outreach efforts will include expanded capabilities for the Pentagon's tollfree Persian Gulf hot line, (800) 7969699. Rostker said DoD also will "become more proactive and interactive" with callers. "We'll engage callers in a dialog," he said, to try to find out as much as possible about U.S. service members' experiences in the gulf.

Rostker also pledged to add email capability to "GulfLink," the Internet web site where DoD posts all Persian Gulf illness research information. "We'll put it up as fast as we can and build our internal staff to handle responses," he said.

The chief investigator said his office's actions will not supersede the ongoing clinical efforts guided by Dr. Stephen Joseph, DoD's chief health officer. Rostker reiterated the department's promise to examine and, as necessary, treat veterans. He said more than 25,000 Gulf War veterans have received examinations under the Comprehensive Clinical Investigation Program begun in 1994.

In light of revelations about possible exposure to chemical weapons, White said DoD has asked the Institute of Medicine to examine clinical protocols to make sure DoD physicians are looking for the right symptoms. In addition, he said most of additional funding would pay for medical research, in particular research into the effects of lowlevel exposure to chemical weapons.

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