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Don't "Tough Out" War Illnesses, Investigators Plead

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky., June 29, 1998 – From the director down, members of the DoD team investigating Gulf War illnesses are concerned that active duty veterans aren't seeking help for their sicknesses.

"Veterans of the Persian Gulf War still on active duty aren't coming forward, because they fear it will shorten their careers," said Bernard Rostker, DoD special assistant for Gulf War illnesses.

Rostker was here June 17 to meet with veterans, family members and local military medical staff. His visit was part of a series of town hall meetings he's conducting around the country to heighten awareness of DoD and Department of Veterans Affairs efforts to diagnose causes and find cures for health problems thousands of veterans have reported. These range from headaches and fatigue to more serious conditions such as memory loss and sexual dysfunction.

"We want everyone who thinks he's sick not to 'tough it out' but come forward and get help," Rostker said. "It's difficult to be hurting and not get treated." Feedback to Rostker and his investigation team suggests a large number of active duty veterans do, in fact, tough it out.

"It's understandable for them to waver about getting help if they think there's a threat to their career or retirement benefits," said Army Dr. (Col.) Frank O'Donnell, Rostker's medical adviser. "But if you're on active duty and you've got some ailment, it doesn't matter to your career or benefits if it occurred in the line of duty. You'll be taken care of."

If service members choose to neglect getting treatment, there's not much that can be done unless it affects their ability to perform duties, O'Donnell noted. "Usually, the first person to spot that is not medics but commanders or first sergeants," he said. "That's why we like to talk to the senior leaders and urge them to be on the lookout for ailing troops and to encourage their troops to get medical help."

O'Donnell also worries that service members may suppress treatable, curable diseases that potentially may be life-threatening. "That's not happening a lot, but the potential is there, particularly for people who are nearing retirement from active duty," he said. "They're in the age group where many of these awful diseases tend to be more likely."

It's human nature to deny you're sick, O'Donnell said. "We're convinced there's a lot of this going on," he added. "How much, we don't know."

The Defense Department program to treat Gulf War veterans involves a registry, clinical evaluation and referrals to specialists as required. Active duty veterans of the war who think they are sick, but don't know why, should report to sick call, O'Donnell said, and register for the Gulf War clinical evaluation program. Or call the toll-free DoD Gulf War veterans hot line at (800) 796-9699.

Rostker's office maintains DoD's Gulflink Persian Gulf illness Web site at http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/.

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