Gulf War Health Lessons Aid Deployments
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 8, 2000 Defense officials want to ensure lessons learned from the Gulf War about medical readiness are applied to current and future troop deployments.
To this end, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen has broadened the scope of DoD's Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, renaming it the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, Medical Readiness and Military Deployments.
"It's everything it was but more," said Bernard Rostker, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. "We're transitioning the organization to deal not only with Gulf War illnesses but also with other situations that might arise from current or future deployments," he told American Forces Information Service in early August.
Rostker has headed the Gulf War office since it opened in November 1996. Since then, his team of up to 180 people has helped Gulf War veterans obtain medical records previously believed lost and has produced more than 30 investigative reports.
As a result of this effort, Rostker said, defense officials realized the Pentagon was not well structured to handle nontraditional situations, in this case, retrospective inquiries. "We're excellent in fighting wars today," he said. "We're terrific at looking forward to fighting wars in the future. It's when we look backward that we're not well structured."
The Gulf War office developed investigative procedures and established working relationships with veterans groups, he said. "It became obvious that these kinds of situations are not unique to just the Gulf War, and we needed a vehicle in the department to maintain focus on veterans' needs today and in the future."
Deployed service members face potential environmental health risks such as industrial waste, poor local sanitation and remnants of chemical weapons used in the past. Rostker's new office will ensure these and other health issues remain on commanders' radar screens.
"We know for example that the Canadians have had concerns about a bivouac area in Croatia," Rostker noted. "The British have had some concerns about a Kosovo camp. We want to be in a position where we can be proactive and support our veterans."
U.S. defense officials are now focusing on these types of environmental hazards as well. In Kosovo, for example, the military has taken hundreds of air, water and soil samples. "These will be very useful if we have to deal with issues of potential exposures in the future," Rostker said.
Prior to selecting base locations in Kosovo, he added, military leaders consulted the Gulf War illnesses office. "We were able to certify the locations as being toxic free."
The Gulf War also has had an impact on chemical doctrine and the design of chemical equipment, Rostker noted. "We've made the chemical community much more sensitive to the need to minimize and record false alarms. That weighed heavily on our veterans during the Gulf War and was something that was never recognized in our doctrine."
The Gulf War also heightened DoD's sensitivity to the need for good medical records and the importance of keeping service members informed about the vaccines they receive. When defense officials tried to reconstruct what had happened during the Gulf War, they found it was impossible to determine where troops were located at all times, which vaccines they had received and what medical procedures had been done.
"While we have not deployed a new medical records system," Rostker said, "we certainly are aware of the need to capture records from the existing system. The new organization will be there to work with the commands to ensure records are preserved -- frankly, in ways that were not done during the Gulf War."
Defense officials also identified the need to properly train troops using depleted uranium. Rostker said the new office would work to ensure all the lessons are incorporated into force health programs.
The office will continue to provide a forum for service members and veterans to discuss deployment concerns via the Internet and toll-free telephone numbers.
"Our ability to work with Gulf War veterans over their concerns will continue uninterrupted," he said. "But we'll extend that to veterans who may be concerned about issues from any other past or any future deployments."