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Gulf War Illness Officials Plan Meetings, Briefings

By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 5, 2000 – DoD experts on Gulf War illnesses head to Germany in April on a four-day whirlwind trip that will include briefings in 14 towns and a town- hall meeting in Heidelberg.

A team from the Pentagon’s Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses begins its outreach mission April 17. The initiative is directed at active duty service members, Gulf War veterans and their families, DoD officials said.

“The briefings are open to anyone in the military communities we visit who is interested in what we’re talking about,” said Army Dr. (Col.) Francis L. O’Donnell, director of medical outreach and issues with the Office of the Special Assistant.

The team is scheduled to hold briefings at Hanau, Wiesbaden, Bad Kreuznach, Baumholder, Darmstadt, Hohenfels, Vilseck, Wuerzburg, Stuttgart, Kaiserslautern, Bamberg, Illesheim and Ansbach. A list of briefing times and locations will be published in "The Stars and Stripes" and installation newspapers, a DoD spokesman said.

The briefings go over several topics. The first is lessons learned during the Gulf War.

“We tell people some of the things we’ve learned from the whole Gulf experience, both during the operations there as well as what we discovered in the aftermath and what we could do better,” O’Donnell said.

Second, he said, his team gives an overview of the steps DoD has taken in researching and treating Gulf War illnesses.

Third, team members discuss how the system has changed as a result of these lessons learned and studies. DoD has changed policy and procedures, doctrine and equipment since the Gulf War.

The fourth reason for the briefings is to highlight the special Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program available to veterans of the Gulf region and their families. Service members and veterans who served in the Persian Gulf during any time period are eligible for the program.

O’Donnell said those still eligible for military medical benefits can enter the program through DoD; those no longer in the military can enroll through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“If they come home and have medical problems they’re worried about and aren’t sure they’ve gotten all the answers, the DoD and VA programs are open to them,” he said. They are also open to family members.

Enrollment in the evaluation program consists of a thorough medical history geared toward Gulf service, a thorough medical examination, and standard and custom sets of laboratory tests. Individuals are treated based on what their cases warrant, and key information is stored in a central database.

O’Donnell said the DoD and VA databases aren’t currently linked, but a major effort under way will combine them. Of the 697,000 people who served in the Gulf War, about 117,000 have enrolled in either the DoD or VA evaulation programs, he said. He explained that doctors are able to make common medical diagnoses on about 80 percent of the 100,000 enrollees who have medical symptoms.

It’s the remaining 20,000 who have focused media attention on Gulf War illnesses, O’Donnell said. “These are folks who have been through the evaluation program, and the docs cannot make a diagnosis or diagnoses to satisfactorily explain their symptoms,” he said.

The most common medically unexplained symptoms are fatigue, rashes, headaches, muscle aches, joint pain, abdominal pain, diarrhea, hair loss, memory loss, difficulty sleeping, depression, and concentration problems, a DoD spokesperson said.

The fifth reason for the briefing is for the team to educate individuals on some measures they can take to preserve their health during future deployments.

“In all this world, the one person who’s the most interested in your health is yourself,” O’Donnell said. “Pay attention. You’re the one who’s got to take responsibility.”

He said using insect repellent and mosquito netting, taking preventive medications as prescribed, and ensuring all immunizations and treatments are properly documented are all simple steps that could have huge repercussions to individuals’ health.

Bernard Rostker, special assistant to the deputy secretary of defense for Gulf War illnesses, will preside over a town hall meeting April 18 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Patrick Henry Village Pavilion in Heidelberg. In town hall settings, attendees set the agenda and Rostker "receives" information from them; at briefings, teams "send" information.

A series of town hall meetings in 13 major U.S. cities during 1997 was the first major outreach initiative of the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, O’Donnell said.

In 1998, the town hall meetings were expanded to three- to five-day outreach visits to military installations throughout the country. The outreach visits included briefings for senior leaders, service members, healthcare providers, DoD civilians, family members, military and veterans service organizations, and the public. Most recently, the team held its 16th outreach visit in the Tidewater region of Virginia. There they met with service members and family members from local Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps installations.

So far, the team has met with more than 55,000 Gulf War veterans, service members, family members and members of the general public, a DoD official said.

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