Gulf War Veterans: The VA Takes Important First Steps

by: Paul Sullivan and Anthony Hardie, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed.  Excerpts follow:
Last week, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) officially recognized several diseases as linked with deployment to the 1991 Gulf War…
As Gulf War veterans, we applaud the VA’s proposed new regulations that streamline access to disability benefits for Gulf War, Iraq war and Afghanistan war veterans.
More importantly, the VA’s new policy opens access to urgently needed free VA health care for the lingering, disabling health outcomes of these terrible diseases.
The VA’s recent decisions were made possible by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and his Chief of Staff, John Gingrich, a fellow Gulf War veteran. The new regulations, prompted by Gulf War veterans’ advocates and the VA’s internal Gulf War Veterans Task Force, will impact more than 3.3 million people – the 700,000 veterans of the 1991 Gulf War, the 400,000 veterans deployed to Southwest Asia between 1991 and 2001 plus the 2.2 million who deployed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
We also applaud the VA’s simultaneous decision to expand approval of veterans’ disability claims for undiagnosed and ill-defined illnesses which affects at least 25 percent, or up to 210,000, of our Gulf War veterans.
For the historical record and for the new VA’s leaders, we hope you understand our cautious optimism:
  • The VA fought against Gulf Research, health care and benefits legislation in 1994 and 1998.
  • After the laws were passed, the VA still fought against implementing them.
  • The VA took four years to create the mandated Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses until caving to fierce Congressional and veteran advocacy.
  • The VA managers intentionally refused to notify about 15,000 Gulf War veterans of a 2001 law that expanded access to benefits and health care.
  • The VA staff manipulated the scope of the Institute of Medicine scientific research reviews to specifically exclude certain types of studies for consideration for health care and benefits. Specifically, the VA excluded lab animal studies linking depleted uranium (DU) with birth defects and cancer.
  • Last year, the VA impeded and then canceled a Congressionally mandated contract for unparalleled Gulf War illness research at the University of Texas Southwestern (UTSW).
  • This year, the VA used the Gulf War research funds designated for UTSW to buy an $11 million piece of lab equipment of dubious value to Gulf War veterans.
  • The VA staff still fight against critical research about toxic exposures and medical treatments, thus impeding our efforts to obtain health care.
If we as a nation are serious about providing justice to our Gulf War veterans, then the new VA has taken a few very positive first steps. In order to prevent future obstruction of health care for veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, then the military has a legal and moral obligation to immediately shut down the use of burn pits overseas. The VA must also provide medical exams to our all returning troops and begin longitudinal studies.
When our government takes these steps, then we will have more confidence it is truly heading in the correct direction.
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