By Thomas D. Williams, Truthout
A federal health panel released conclusions Monday that evidence strongly and consistently indicates hundreds of thousands of US troops in the first Gulf War contracted long-term illnesses from use of pills, given by their own military to protect them from effects of chemical weaponized nerve agents, and from their military's pesticide use during deployment.
Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses report covers a large range of scientific research and government investigations on Gulf War illness. Its authors claim their "comprehensive analysis" resolves many questions about what caused Gulf War illness and what types of health care can address these serious conditions, which affect at least one in four of the 697,000 Gulf War veterans.
A committee summary describes veterans' various, painfully nagging and long-term health obstacles. "Illness profiles typically include some combination of chronic headaches, cognitive difficulties, widespread pain, unexplained fatigue, chronic diarrhea, skin rashes, respiratory problems, and other abnormalities. This symptom complex, now commonly referred to as Gulf War illness, is not explained by routine medical evaluations or by psychiatric diagnoses and has persisted, for many veterans, for 17 years. While specific symptoms can vary between individuals, a remarkably consistent illness profile has emerged from hundreds of reports and studies of different Gulf War veteran populations from different regions of the US and from allied countries."
In addition to pills supposedly protecting soldiers from nerve agents, the deadly agents themselves ultimately became a crucial wartime exposure. During the January and February 1991 ground war and after, US and allied forces destroyed large stores of Iraqi chemical weapons. And, as the war itself progressed, thousands of military chemical alarms went off, causing soldiers to don chemical protective equipment. Since then, the US General Accountability Office (GAO) and veterans' advocates have repeatedly criticized the lack of quality of the chemical protective masks and protective suits worn by US troops.
Two of the most controversial after-war explosions of underground Iraqi chemical storage depots were set off by US forces themselves at Khamisiyah, Iraq, on March 4 and 10, 1991. Few of the troops were wearing protective gear at the time even though US forces had access to earlier intelligence reports detailing the chemicals inside the bombed bunkers. The Defense Department (DoD) first estimated that 5,000 troops were exposed, and then increased the estimates repeatedly until the number rose to 100,000. Another GAO report said the number is much higher than that but gave no specific figure. At the time and years afterward, the DoD claimed the troops' exposure to chemical warfare agents was too weak to have seriously harmed their health.
Still another of the Research Advisory Committee's conclusions says, "Studies indicate that Gulf War veterans have significantly higher rates of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) than other veterans, and that Gulf War veterans potentially exposed to nerve agents have died from brain cancer at elevated rates. Although these conditions have affected relatively few veterans, they are cause for concern and require continued monitoring."
Pesticides, mentioned in Monday's committee report, were used routinely during the war to protect service members against harmful or molesting insects biting troops throughout the Iraq war zone. Common Gulf War insecticides included d-phenothrin, chlorpyrifos, resmethrin, malathion, methomyl and lindane, according to the US Department of Defense Deployment Health Clinical Center. Deet and permethrin (a pyrethroid), are technically repellents rather than insecticides, says the center, but they were also an ultimate health concern, the center opines.
The Research Advisory Committee's continued conclusions say that limited other evidence, not totally decisive, shows that the armed service members could have become sick from low-level exposure to chemical warfare nerve agents as well as their close proximity to oil well fires, their receipt of multiple so-called preventative vaccines, and the effects of combinations of their hazardous other Gulf War exposures.
The report was issued by the committee to US Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake. "The VA has accepted and implemented prior recommendations of the committee and values the work represented in the report presented today. Secretary Peake thanked the committee for its report and recommendations and directed VA to review and respond to the committee's recommendations in the near future," said Alison Aikele, a VA spokesperson. Despite receiving at least one adverse comment via email, the VA did not respond to that criticism. As well, Charlene Reynolds, a defense contract spokeswoman for the Pentagon, said the DoD is preparing a similar statement without yet being sure when it would be released.
It knocks down repeated theories of largely Pentagon-funded studies that one of the main causes of all these wartime illnesses was post-traumatic stress disorders or other mental ailments. "Gulf War illness fundamentally differs from trauma and stress-related syndromes described after other wars," concludes the report. "Studies consistently indicate that Gulf War illness is not the result of combat or other stressors and that Gulf War veterans have lower rates of posttraumatic stress disorder than veterans of other wars." This discredits the Water Reed Army Medical Center's extensive studies of Gulf War veterans, which concluded stress was a major cause of Gulf War illnesses.
The Research Advisory Committee's conclusions additionally minimize other allegedly sickening Gulf War exposures, including depleted uranium munitions blasts, anthrax vaccine use, fuels, solvents, sand and particulates, infectious diseases and chemical agent resistant coating (CARC). However, numerous other scientific reports have earlier concluded these exposures, too, sometimes proved extremely sickening for war veterans.
Highlighted by the committee's findings is what many veterans' advocates have called the gross negligence of responsible federal health and military agencies in repeatedly failing to get to the bottom of what the government labeled the "mysterious Gulf War syndrome" illnesses. What's more, during three presidential reigns and several sessions of US Congresses, the highest level officials continuously discussed these hazards and resulting troop illnesses and deaths, but never came to their own ultimate conclusions or scientific plans to deal with the health consequences.
Denise Nichols, a veteran nurse, retired Army major and vice chair of National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition, has worked many years to assist sick Gulf War service members. "The veterans of the Gulf War 90-91 did not give up," wrote the nurse. "They knew that physically something in their bodies was damaged. They have been stating this since November 1993, when the first hearings [in Congress] occurred. Their family members have seen it and tried to hold their families together waiting for answers from the government. It has been an exceedingly difficult nightmare for these veterans and their families. Many were told that it was psychological or somatic and [so] families left their veteran loved ones behind. [And,] many of these veterans have died, [been] forgotten [or] misdiagnosed. It is time now that the government declassify all [wartime and post war] records that might provide more answers. After all, in 2003, we liberated Iraq, so many ask now, 'Why not let these records that may provide answers be fully declassified?'"
After the end of 43 days of dirty chemical and environmental Gulf War chaos when former President George H.W. Bush laid out conditions for a cease fire on Feb. 27, 1991, hundreds of thousands of US, allied, Iraqi troops and Iraqi civilians suffered resulting long-term illnesses and, ultimately, untold deaths. Very limited medical attention has ever been paid by US federal agencies to sick Iraqi civilians the US military and their private contractors were supposed to protect.
Today, close to 18 years later, US and foreign governments are still making promises, struggling and conversing over failed attempts to give the combatants and civilians proper health care. Meanwhile, as the US fights the second war in Iraq and continues along with the war in Afghanistan, the failed attempts to deal with US casualties and sicknesses continues at a similar dragged out pace. "When will they ever get it done?" war veterans have repeatedly asked themselves and others.
Monday, the 14-member Research Advisory Committee and a consultant, composed of doctors, scientists and veterans, confirmed these thousands of Gulf War One veterans' haunting and frustrating concerns. It concluded, "Federal Gulf War research programs have not been effective, historically, in addressing priority issues related to Gulf War illness and the health of Gulf War veterans. Substantial federal Gulf War research funding has been used for studies that have little or no relevance to the health of Gulf War veterans, and for research on stress and psychiatric illness ... A renewed federal research commitment is needed to identify effective treatments for Gulf War illness and address other priority Gulf War health issues."
"After 17 years of official government delays and denials, VA's Research Advisory Committee should be commended for their work providing facts about Gulf War illnesses," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense (VCS). "Veterans for Common Sense is concerned that there are up to 210,000 Gulf War veterans who remain ill after serving the 1991 Gulf War, and these veterans still need healthcare and disability benefits."
"VCS urges Congress to fund new research into why so many Gulf War veterans are ill as well as fund research into desperately needed medical treatments for veterans. VCS also urges top VA officials to review the conduct of the VA Central Office staff who blocked scientific research and treatments for veterans, especially VA's contracts with the Institute of Medicine that improperly excluded animal studies from scientific review. The VA Central Office staff who needlessly delayed research, treatment, and disability benefits for hundreds of thousands of Gulf War veterans should be held accountable for their actions," said Sullivan.
He continued, "The facts now show that top Pentagon officials failed to assist Gulf War veterans by clinging to the myth that Gulf War illnesses was related to stress." Sullivan went on to say that the US Army "neglected to consider the many toxic exposures as potential causes of Gulf War illnesses, even after Gulf War veterans raised these as serious possibilities."
The committee identified four areas of highest priority research to assist sick Gulf War veterans as follows:
1) Evaluate the effectiveness of currently available treatments used for Gulf War illness or conditions with similarities to Gulf War illness.
2) Pilot trials and/or observational studies capable of identifying promising treatments suitable for evaluation in larger clinical trials.
3) Identification of specific pathophysiological mechanisms underlying Gulf War illness that are potentially amenable to treatment interventions.
4) Assess novel therapies based on scientific findings as they emerge.
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