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Defense Team Preps Medics to Treat Gulf War Illnesses

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky., July 6, 1998 – Before Bernard Rostker, DoD special assistant for Gulf War illnesses, arrived here June 17 to meet with veterans and family members, he sent an advance team of medical officers to meet with local Army doctors and nurses.

While Rostker's objective was to tell people what DoD is doing to find causes and cures, his medical team came to teach their local counterparts what to look for in their patients.

"Active duty medical people aren't that well-informed on the whole issue of Gulf War illnesses," said Army Dr. (Col.) Francis O'Donnell. "Many of the physicians came into the service after the Persian Gulf War, and most of them have not been directly involved in treatment regimens."

The array of symptoms veterans have reported include fatigue, loss of appetite, headaches, memory loss and a general feeling of sickness, said O'Donnell, the DoD team's medical and health benefits collaborator.

Some 45 physicians and nurses attended briefings here June 16 to learn more about the kinds of symptoms they're likely to see. There have been similar turnouts at other bases the team has visited.

"We bring them up to speed, let them know what is being observed elsewhere, what the nation is saying about Gulf War illnesses," O'Donnell said. One reason installation medics often don't keep up with research and clinical findings on the illnesses is the small size of most local staffs.

"A typical military treatment facility tends to be just a few, maybe only one primary care physician," O'Donnell said. "Even medical specialists in larger facilities won't necessarily be current on Gulf War illnesses, because they are very busy treating other diseases and illnesses."

Medics at the base or post level don't always take an interest in all that's coming down from command channels or being published in medical journals, O'Donnell said. "They're not going out looking for new areas of medical expertise unless they think it's something that's going to pertain to them," he said.

With a more concerted effort this year to get active duty veterans to sign up for Gulf War illness screenings, local medics could see an increase in Gulf War veteran patients. The DoD team's goal is to make sure they're sensitized to those veterans' medical needs. Local medical staffs have been responsive, O'Donnell said.

"We're eager to hear everything that these experts have to tell us," said Dr. (Col.) Tom Deal, the hospital commander here. "We'll put that information to as good a use as we can."

Besides Fort Campbell, the DoD team so far this year has traveled to Fort Riley, Kan., and Fort Sill, Okla. They'll visit Fort Bragg, N.C., and Camp Pendleton, Calif., this summer, and other bases throughout the rest of 1998.

At each stop, the team sets up information displays where it registers veterans for physical screenings, trains medics, then meets with veterans and family members in a town hall setting. The meetings provide both veterans and the DoD team information to deal with Gulf War illness symptoms for which no diagnosis or cure has yet been found.

Rostker's office maintains DoD's Gulflink Persian Gulf illness Web site at http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/.

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