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Gulf War Vets Diagnosed With ALS Are Eligible For VA Care

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 30, 2003 – About two years ago, Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi declared that U.S. military veterans who had served in the Persian Gulf region during the 1990-91 Gulf War are eligible for VA care if they've been diagnosed with a rare neurological disease that killed a famous baseball player.

Principi's decision, announced in December 2001, was based on a $1.3 million DoD/VA-sponsored study of Gulf War veterans that indicated service members who had deployed to the Gulf "were at elevated risk" of acquiring amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, according to DoD Office of Health Affairs documents.

The medical journal "Neurology" published the results of the study, which began in March 2000, in its Sept. 23, 2003, issue.

Through research of available military medical records representing about half of the number of personnel who deployed - the study discovered 40 ALS cases within a troop population of about 700,000 that had deployed to the Gulf region during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, noted Dr. Michael E. Kilpatrick, DoD's deputy director of deployment health support, during an interview here today.

Health statisticians, Kilpatrick explained, figured that about 33 cases of ALS among military members who'd served in the Gulf from August 2, 1990, to July 31, 1991, would have been consistent with trends within the comparative nondeployed military population.

Those seven additional ALS cases cited in the study, he noted, helped the VA to decide to extend service-connected medical benefits to Gulf War vets who have ALS.

The study also noted, Kilpatrick continued, there were 67 cases of ALS among the approximately 1.7 million service members who didn't deploy to the Gulf region during the Persian Gulf War.

Yet, given the low overall incidence of ALS cases found among deployed military during the Gulf War and the fact that no one knows exactly what causes ALS, Kilpatrick pointed out that service members currently in the Gulf region shouldn't be worried about acquiring the disease.

The work that went into the Gulf War veterans ALS study "is the product of a significant investment by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs over the past several years," Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs noted recently.

Such scientific research, Winkenwerder added, "helps answer veterans' questions and holds the promise for better protection of the health of our men and women during future deployments."

ALS was first identified in 1869, Kilpatrick pointed out. New York Yankees' star Lou Gehrig died of the disease at age 37 in 1941.

The disease progressively attacks victims' spinal and brain nerve centers, eventually causing paralysis and loss of speech. Mental faculties are not affected. Death -- often caused by accompanying illnesses such as infections -- usually occurs within two to five years of diagnosis of ALS. There is currently no known cure, Kilpatrick noted.

It's important for Gulf War veterans who've been diagnosed with ALS to know they're eligible for about $21,000 in service-connected VA medical benefits, as well as in-home medical equipment and assistance, Kilpatrick said.

The ALS Association has sent out a message to all neurologists "to make sure they understand this issue," he concluded.

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