Gulf War Vets Dial VA for Help
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 4, 1996 More than 1,900 calls a week are coming into the Department of Veterans Affairs Persian Gulf Information Center help line.
The callers are responding to information DoD released Oct. 23 that some 20,000 veterans may have been exposed to a nerve agent when munitions were destroyed at Khamisiyah, Iraq, in March 1991.
Before that announcement, VA received 200-300 calls a day from veterans seeking information and assistance. Callers get recorded information about available VA health services and benefits and can talk to an operator for more specific information. But VA would really like them to report to one of 172 VA medical centers in the United States for a free physical examination. Information on the location of medical centers can be found in the blue pages of telephone books.
To obtain a physical evaluation, veterans have to register with a VA medical center and obtain an appointment, explained Dr. Frances M. Murphy, director of VA's Persian Gulf illness program. "Our registry program began in 1992, providing any Gulf War veteran with health concerns a free examination," Murphy said. "We now have evaluated more than 61,000 veterans."
Registered veterans receive periodic updates on efforts to determine the source or sources of the health problems and access to follow-on care, if needed. They also may qualify for VA disability pay. The department has approved nearly 26,000 compensation claims from Gulf War veterans.
It takes about 30 days to get an appointment with a doctor, Murphy said. The actual exam takes several hours, during which the health provider records the patient's medical history and completes the physical exam. Patients also undergo complete blood work and a urinalysis.
If there are no abnormalities, patients get results of the exam in several weeks, Murphy explained. If health problems are evident, however, the physician conducts further diagnostic testing and may decide to hospitalize the veteran for additional evaluation. This usually is done at the same hospital the veteran reported to for the initial evaluation.
However, the veteran could be referred to one of four designated VA medical centers in Washington, Houston, Los Angeles or Birmingham, Ala. A little more than 325 veterans have been referred to one of these centers. Because the testing they'll receive is extensive, Murphy said, veterans referred to one of the centers should expect to be hospitalized 10 days.
"Many of the VA medical centers, however, are large, well-equipped and can provide the full range of diagnostic services," Murphy said, "so most people get in- and outpatient care close to home."
While concern over exposure to chemical weapons prompted the dramatic rise in requests for information and physicals, Murphy said VA looked for symptoms of chemical contamination when it began evaluating Gulf War vets.
"It's important for veterans to realize the clinical programs were in place to care for them since 1992 ... and we always considered the full range of illnesses, including exposure to chemical agents," she said.
Veterans should not, however, expect the examination to reveal whether they were exposed to chemical agents. "We don't have the ability to determine that at this point," Murphy added.
Many medical groups in and outside the federal government have tried and failed so far to define a single cause for Persian Gulf illnesses, Murphy said. "Now, we're looking at smaller groups of veterans to see if they have common illnesses such as chronic fatigue that we can define. What is clear is there's a wide variety of medical diagnoses being made that span all organ systems and different kinds of abnormalities."
Besides evaluating and treating Gulf War veterans, VA conducts ongoing research into possible causes of the illnesses. Veterans Affairs doctors have completed a study of mortality rates and will publish results in November, Murphy said.
"So far, however, none of the research has shown a unique, single disease, nor is there an increased rate of life-threatening conditions," she said. "That doesn't mean Persian Gulf veterans aren't ill or aren't suffering. We strongly believe there are ill and disabled veterans out there, and we're committed to caring for them."
Murphy urged Gulf War veterans to take advantage of VA programs. "If nothing else, [they should] get information through the help line, and if they are concerned at all about their health, come in and get an examination." Veterans should call the VA health registry at 1-800-749-8387. Active and reserve component members should call DoD's Persian Gulf line at (800) 796-9699, for treatment in DoD health care facilities.