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VA Center Examines Service Members Reproductive Health

By Maj. Donna Miles, USAR
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 9, 1997 – When Army Capt. Raymond Topp returned from Desert Storm six years ago, he and his wife Stephanie had dreams of starting a family.

But the Topps' dreams didn't have a storybook ending. Their daughter Daley was born a year later with a serious heart problem, and their second child died eight days after birth.

Department of Veterans Affairs officials have opened a research center to study families like the Topps to see if military service has any impact on what the VA calls "reproductive health."

The center, located at the VA Medical Center in Louisville, Ky., is researching the potential link between military service and the ability not only to reproduce, but to produce healthy babies.

Dr. Kenneth Kizer, VA's undersecretary for health, said the goal is to resolve unanswered questions. Among them: Do military personnel have more birth defects? Do military personnel have more stillbirths or miscarriages? Are there more problems in pregnancy, either among women who have been on active duty or the wives of men who have been on active duty?

"No one has looked at this," Kizer said in an interview with Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. "What are the consequences? What are the implications for our active duty people, particularly later in life? Those are questions that are just not answered."

Topp admitted he sometimes wonders if his military service affected his children's health. "During Desert Storm, there were the oil wells and the oil fires. We were always in [mission-oriented protective posture] gear, and we never were sure what we were being exposed to," he said.

But he acknowledged no concrete evidence has ever linked those exposures to his children's health. "Even though we've had lots of exposures, after Desert Storm and going to the field and the normal hazards of being in military life, we never could really pinpoint anything," he said.

Dr. Jerald Hoffman, a researcher at the center, said that's what the staff is trying to do. They are conducting two clinical projects, one to measure the effects of Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam veterans and the other testing blood samples from Gulf War veterans to search for mustard gas exposure. Hoffman said the staff is running several basic research projects, too. One focuses on environmental toxins that either act as, or affect, male and female hormones.

But Kizer said so far, no studies at the VA center or elsewhere have identified a higher incidence of birth defects among children of veterans, including Gulf War veterans, as compared to civilians.

Dr. Alicia Armstrong, the assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., said it's important to keep studying the issue.

"Looking at large numbers, it doesn't appear from the preliminary analysis that there is an increased risk," she said. "But that doesn't mean that for an individual family that there wouldn't be questions and concerns. And I think it's important for us to continue to do research in this area to answer those questions."

Topp's wife, Stephanie, said the VA research center might answer what she calls the most important questions for military families: "Did something cause this, and could something be prevented next time for somebody else?"

Kizer said the VA's research effort is a big step toward doing just that, not only for military members and their families today, but also for those yet to serve.

"As we look the the future, it appears that warfare is becoming even more dirty and more contaminated than previous wars," Kizer said. "The Gulf War is a good example of what's likely to come: smoke from the oil wells, concerns about chemical and biological warfare, the need to take different types of medications to protentially protect against illness.

"All of these raise the question, Is this going to have some effect, ultimately, on the individual or their offspring? That's what we're working to find out. It's something we owe our military veterans."

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