Veteran Researcher Looks for Clues to Gulf War Illnesses
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 8, 1997 Barely a day goes by that some new revelation surfaces about possible exposure of Gulf War veterans to chemical contamination. The unenviable task of checking out each allegation falls on the shoulders of a veteran researcher with a bulldog mien and a blood hound nose for sniffing out facts.
Bernard Rostker brought size, organization, structure, philosophy and management to bear on DoD's investigation of Gulf War illnesses. Before that, he said, the investigation was unfocused and undisciplined.
"The Marine Corps did a study [on the effectiveness] of nuclear, biological and chemical detection during the Gulf War," Rostker said of early attempts to determine the causes of veterans' reported illnesses. "One of the observations was there were a lot of unsubstantiated, uncorroborated reports. They drew a conclusion that there were enough reports that we could not dismiss the possibility [of chemical contamination] categorically.
"What we have been doing in my organization is not dismissing the possibility categorically," said DoD's special assistant for Gulf War illnesses.
Since Rostker began heading the investigation in November 1996, his group has grown from a dozen to more than 100 full-time investigators. The leap in size nearly parallels the escalating numbers of veterans -- from a few thousand to nearly 100,000 -- who officials now believe may have been exposed to sarin nerve gas by a single Gulf War incident. Shortly after the war ended, U.S. soldiers were ordered to destroy an enemy weapons cache near Khamisiyah, Iraq. However, it wasn't until June 1996 that DoD publicly confirmed the presence of chemical weapons there.
Before DoD learned of Khamisiyah, investigators were giving reported incidents a "broad brush," Rostker said. "We were not accounting to our service members and veterans in sufficient detail to be credible when we said an event did or did not happen. That's the biggest paradigm shift in what went on before and what happened after Khamisiyah."
When news of the Khamisiyah incident broke, the small cadre of investigators was overwhelmed. With Rostker at the helm, their numbers rapidly expanded. But more importantly, they began developing a strategic sense of their mission, he said. That mission is to investigate every incident, seek corroboration, report the findings and invite feedback -- through a series of case narratives, meetings with veterans groups and an interactive site on the World Wide Web (www.gulflink.osd.mil).
Rostker demanded scholarly research and output in the case narratives, the first of which was published in February and reported the Khamisiyah incident. Completeness and accuracy outweigh timeliness, he told his team. As a result, the investigation has gone "a little slower than I hoped," he said.
"The early papers went through a number of rewrites that probably delayed them one or two months," Rostker said. "Later papers are coming out much smoother, and in September we'll release three or four new papers. So we're catching up."
Rostker said he's proud of the narrative approach. Each narrative begins with an informative front section spelling out all known facts surrounding the reported incident. An official assessment of those facts follows. "We try to provide the facts as neutrally as we can, and people are free to draw whatever conclusions they want out of it," he said.
What case narratives don't do is provide all the answers. "We can wrap the narrative up and say we don't have certain information and as all case narratives do, ask people to provide us with additional details," he said. Each narrative begins with a cover letter from Rostker, a statement that the report is interim rather than final and a plea to call his office toll-free at (800) 472-6719 with new information.
Rostker said he also is proud of the success of a series of town hall meetings held this summer around the United States. From Boston to San Diego, Rostker crisscrossed the nation meeting with veterans groups. He went with an open ear and sometimes felt the burn of angry voices.
"A great deal of the anger was not necessarily with DoD but with the whole issue of how they were being treated by the government," he said. "It's important to hear that, and it gives me a renewed boost for trying to get to the bottom of this. There clearly are people who are ill, and we want to do everything we can for them." Rostker said he'll conduct another series of town hall meetings this winter.
What people should understand about the investigation, Rostker said, is it's a learning experience for those involved. "We are desperate to understand what went on in the gulf so that we can change our procedures, policies, equipment and doctrine to minimize the possibility that these adverse events will occur again."
When should the investigation end? "We're struggling with that," Rostker said. "There are still a number of first-round things that need to be done -- cases and background papers that we have commissioned and are due later this year and early next year. There also are secondary cases that are important, and we will put resources to work on those."
Whatever the outcome of the investigation, Rostker said DoD wants "to do everything we can to help the veterans. I can't promise that we'll make them well and that we'll find the definitive cause of their illnesses. But we will give them as thorough an accounting as is humanly possible."