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Pentagon Responds to Criticism of Gulf War Inquiry

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 8, 1997 – Defense officials expressed disappointment with a September draft report from the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses deeply critical of the DoD investigation.

"Frankly, we've been working hand and glove with the [committee] to try to answer as many of the questions as we can about what went on in the gulf, what caused some of the symptoms that people are suffering and to determine the best way to treat and care for veterans who fought during the Gulf War," DoD spokesman Ken Bacon told reporters Sept. 25 at the Pentagon.

"Our process has been completely open to them, completely transparent," Bacon said. "We have followed their guidance; we have allowed their staffers to ... sit in on all our meetings. ... They have been on the ground floor of all our studies over the last year, and in light of that, we were frankly somewhat disappointed by their comments that we have been less than open and less than credible in our approach to this.

"What we can't promise is to be able to answer every question," Bacon said. "We have not promised that, and, in fact, we have not been able to answer every question, nor have they. This is a very, very difficult topic. It's emotional, it's scientific, it's historical, and it has many, many strands to it. We've been trying to unravel those strands, and so have they."

At the president's request, the committee has continued oversight of the investigation since issuing its final report in December 1996. Bacon said he hopes DoD and the committee will be able to resolve their differences before the committee dissolves in November.

After meeting Sept. 4-5 in Alexandria, Va., committee members suggested the investigation should be taken away from DoD because the department had lost credibility after denying for too long the possibility of chemical weapons exposures.

"I agree we have a huge burden to overcome, that we were slow to appreciate the problem and ... slow to investigate it as aggressively as we should have," Bacon said. However, he added, DoD "responded aggressively when the president, in the spring of 1995, launched a new effort to find out what happened to people who fought in the gulf." Bacon cited DoD's intensive investigation of a number of reported incidents and the release of case narratives on each incident during the past year.

Bacon urged the public, press and veterans to "look at what we've done since June of 1996 and ask ... have we proceeded more aggressively, more openly and more forthrightly ... than before, and I think the answer will be, undeniably, yes. Has that led to answers to every question? Unfortunately, no."

But Bacon said the Pentagon now has a much clearer picture of what it needs to do to respond to health problems when they arise and how to track medical care provided to soldiers in theater operations before, during and after a conflict.

"All of this will ... improve the way we deal with health problems," he said. "We've seen some of that in Bosnia. It's not flawless -- we've made mistakes there, too. But I think we've done a better job there than we did in the gulf."

Bacon said the Pentagon won't resist further oversight of the DoD inquiry, but said it doesn't make sense to turn the investigation over to another, nondefense agency. "I think it would hurt the cause of veterans and ... the cause of clarity in trying to get to the bottom of this problem," he said.

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