Meeting Airs Efforts, Gripes Over Illness Probe
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky., June 19, 1998 Bernard Rostker has taken many a rabbit punch for his efforts to meet with sick Gulf War veterans.
Despite continued tough audiences, the DoD special assistant for Gulf War illnesses keeps up a schedule that took him to 13 cities last year. There, he conducted town hall meetings to tell veterans what DoD's doing to help them and to hear their complaints. At these meetings, worried, angry veterans demanded relief and fueled the now two-year-old investigation with new information for medical researchers to examine.
This year, Rostker is visiting military installations, because a third of Gulf War veterans are still on active duty. "And they need help, too," he said. On his visits to Fort Sill, Okla., and Fort Riley, Kan., the turnout was solid and the questions sharp, he said.
Any notion that an on-post group would somehow be less confrontational than an in-town one were quickly dispelled here June 17. Members of the audience lined up to throw punches at a government they aren't sure they can trust to answer their questions and restore their health.
Joined on the dais at the Fort Campbell High School by his deputy, retired Army. Lt. Gen. Dale Vesser; his medical adviser, Army Dr. (Col.) Francis O'Donnell; and Department of Veterans Affairs regional director Tom Jensen, Rostker tried to win over the group early. "We know you are hurting and we care," he told the roughly 200 men, women and children, a mix of active duty, former and retired soldiers and their families.
Rostker then recited the three most often-asked questions before detailing answers to each: Why am I sick? Do you really care? Why should I trust what you are doing? To the first question, he responded point-blank, "I don't know," an answer he'd repeat often as the room heated up with emotion to match the hot June night outdoors.
He noted millions of dollars of private research to discover answers to the reported ills that range from loss of memory to sexual dysfunction. "We'll start to publish research papers shortly," he said.
He talked about what DoD has done in addition to medical research: the town hall meetings, case studies, thousands of interviews with veterans and the GulfLINK web site (www.gulflink.osd.mil) and newsletter.
And he cited changes now under way that will better protect service members during future deployments. He noted new chemical detection alarms and immunizations as examples.
Finally, Rostker urged sick active duty Gulf War veterans to see a doctor. "If you or anyone you know has any concerns about your health, it's very important to register with either DoD or the VA," he said. "Over 80 percent of the conditions you report can be diagnosed and treated. Get medical help. We need to know who you are, what you know, what you are feeling."
A tense question-and-answer period followed Rostker's opening statement. Of particular interest to this audience were the possible health effects on family members. O'Donnell fielded most of the medical questions.
"There are some researches going on to explain possible infection of Gulf War veterans that would be a medical breakthrough if they produce positive results," he said. But, he added, there's no current evidence that veterans could or have passed on their sicknesses to spouses and children.
Many answers Rostker and his team provided countered the questions raised, which riled the audience. At one point, a retired first sergeant stood at the microphone and demanded that DoD stop finding pat answers to its own questions and "begin answering ours. You've taken seven years to get your answers. Now we want our questions answered. Tell us what you know."
Rostker responded DoD is hiding nothing from the veterans or from him, personally. "Any information about possible chemical events during the war that was previously classified has been declassified," he said. He noted also that all such information is available to veterans on the GulfLINK web site.
The wife of a retired civilian employee of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service complained of blisters that covered 95 percent of her body after she handled a sleeping bag her husband brought home from the war.
"Do you still have the bag?" Rostker asked.
"No, but I have plenty of other memorabilia he brought back," she said.
"Give us something to test," Rostker suggested.
"How can we trust you?" someone from the audience hollered out.
"You pick the laboratory, you order the tests, and we'll arrange and pay for it," Rostker responded.
Others in the audience were less confrontational and lauded the town hall concept. "Thank you for coming here to talk to us," a young sergeant said when it was his turn at the microphone. The mother a sick veteran also thanked the team for coming to Fort Campbell but abruptly sat down after saying she doesn't think enough is being done to help the veterans.
The agenda and audience response fit Rostker's own tenacious approach to dealing with the investigation he directs.
"The town hall meetings are open to everyone, and they're as much an opportunity for us to share with veterans what we've done as to learn from them what they need," he said. "Roughly 20 percent of those who have come through the registries we don't know why they are ill. Until we know the answers, forums like these are extremely important."
The next town hall meeting is slated for mid-July at Fort Bragg, N.C. In the meantime, Rostker encourages sick veterans who haven't registered to call the Gulf War veterans hotline at (800) 796-9699, and persons with information that could shed light on the investigation to call the incident reporting line at (800) 472-6719.