A Decade Later: Gulf War Illnesses Remain a Mystery
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 8, 2000 After numerous medical studies and battlefield recreations, defense officials have yet to learn why tens of thousands of Gulf War veterans are sick.
Nearly 10 years after U.S. troops and coalition partners forced Saddam Hussein's Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait, Bernard Rostker talked about DoD's quest for the causes of Gulf War illnesses. The undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness and head of DoD's Gulf War illnesses office readily acknowledged his team has not attained its ultimate goal.
"I wish I could tell you that we knew what was making them sick," Rostker said in an early August interview. "But, at this point, we don't have a good idea of why some are sick and some are not sick."
Defense officials take veterans' concerns about exposure to gas, biological and other agents seriously, he stressed. "I know how frustrating it is for the veterans. We're not blowing them off. We've tried to work very hard over the last three years with them to be respectful of their concerns and do the best job we can researching possible causes."
When defense officials began seeking answers they hoped to identify patterns of illness, he said. "We were hoping we would be able to possibly find events that were consistent with concerns of the veterans and their health status," Rostker said. "Unfortunately, there is not a clear pattern of illness, and there's not a clear indication of why our service members are ill."
Following up on one sick veteran who had served in a company of 200, for example, investigators found none of the others reporting same illness. "It's very difficult to pin it to an environmental exposure when you have so many people who shared environments who are not coming up with the same concerns," he said.
Since the Gulf War illnesses office opened in November 1996, Rostker and his team of up to 180 people have conducted investigations, producing more than 30 reports. The office has run numerous medical studies and methodically tried to recreate what happened in the gulf.
"With the exception of the low-level release associated with the demolition at the ammunition dump at Khamisiyah (Iraq), we don't see -- and neither does the United Nations see -- a release of chemical weapons on the battlefield," Rostker said.
The General Accounting Office, two presidential advisory commissions and a special Senate investigative unit have reviewed the work. "We've had myriads of hearings before the government oversight committee," he said. "No one has been able to come to a definitive answer about why service members are sick."
Rostker's office is now wrapping up its efforts, closing out remaining Gulf War investigations. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen has broadened the scope of the Gulf War illnesses office and renamed it the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, Medical Readiness and Military Deployments.
A presidential special oversight board, led by former Sen. Warren G. Rudman, supported DoD's proposal to give the office a broader venue to look at all deployments, Rostker said. "We will be there as advocates for our service members to make sure records are maintained so we can provide the data necessary to do a better job in recreating what has happened in any future deployment."
Rostker stressed that the end of the Gulf War illness office does not mean the end of DoD's concern for Gulf War veterans. "We're not giving up on Gulf War veterans," he said. "We will investigate any case that looks like it has a plausible contribution to the health concerns, but we're frankly out of leads."
Medical research is also continuing on birth defects and hospitalizations, as well as individual research projects looking at the so-called cocktail effect, he said. "We'll be carrying on research on pesticides well into the next year."
The new office will address veterans' concerns on any conflict. "The ultimate compliment to the Gulf War veterans is that we don't want to repeat the poor performance of the department again," Rostker said. "The best way to avoid that is to have a small, but flexible, organization that can meet the concerns not only of today's veterans, but of tomorrow's veterans."
As in the past, the office will continue to provide a forum for service members and veterans to discuss their deployment concerns via the Internet and toll-free telephone numbers. Defense officials say one of the lessons learned from the Gulf War is that veterans have a desire for information and an expectation that their questions will be answered.
Rostker's team will maintain www.GulfLINK.osd.mil Web site and new information will be posted as narratives and reports are completed. A new Web site will be developed to address questions and concerns about other deployments.