Medical experts and U.S. senators accused the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department on Tuesday of failing to take seriously illnesses suffered by U.S. 1991 Gulf War veterans and doing too little to help them.
Expert witnesses called before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee testified that Gulf War illnesses are real, serious and widespread among U.S. troops sent to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The issue has been controversial for years.
The Institute of Medicine, which provides advice on medical issues to U.S. policymakers, concluded in September 2006 that Gulf War veterans reported far more symptoms of illness than their fellow troops who were not deployed.
One in four report illness
But its report said studies have failed to establish that these symptoms constitute a medical syndrome unique to Gulf War veterans.
Some of the harshest criticism of the government came from members of an advisory committee created by Congress in 1998 to advise the VA on Gulf War illnesses.
This panel's chairman, James Binns, said 16 years after the war, 175,000 U.S. veterans -- one in four of those who served -- remain seriously ill, with the sickest among them developing neurodegenerative diseases and brain cancer.
Binns said Pentagon and VA officials continue to "minimize these illnesses at every opportunity, misleading Congress and the scientific community." He faulted a VA fact sheet given to some senators stating, "Gulf War veterans suffer from a wide range of common illnesses, which might be expected in any group of veterans their age."
"That," Binns testified, "is garbage."
Lea Steele, scientific director for the advisory panel, said veterans with Gulf War illness typically experience some combination of severe headaches, memory and concentration problems, persistent pain, fatigue, gastrointestinal and respiratory problems and unusual skin lesions and rashes.
The causes remain contentious, with some of the possibilities often cited including: low-dose exposure to chemical weapons, vaccines or medications given by the military, pesticides or smoke from burning oil wells.
Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina cited a consensus among Veterans Affairs committee members that Gulf War illnesses are real. Washington state Democratic Sen. Patty Murray blasted the Pentagon's "long and shameful history" of failing to help the ill veterans.
A Pentagon health official said 15 to 20 percent of U.S. troops deployed to fight the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are coming home with "ill-defined" medical symptoms that defy standard diagnosis, as was the case with Gulf War vets.
"I don't want to say we're seeing Gulf War illness in these folks," the Pentagon's Dr. Michael Kilpatrick said after the hearing, but added that some symptoms are similar to those seen in the earlier Gulf War veterans.
'A tragic record of failure'
Binns said the U.S. government has spent more than $300 million on Gulf War illness research.
"Much of the money was misspent on the false theory that these illnesses were caused by psychological stress, part of a deliberate effort to downplay these illnesses as the sort of thing that happens after every war, rather than the result of toxic exposures," Binns said.
"Only two treatment studies have ever been conducted, with negligible results. This is a tragic record of failure, and the time lost can never be regained," Binns said.
Kilpatrick said the 1991 Gulf War veterans who report health problems are definitely ill, but do not have a single type of health problem. "There isn't any constellation of symptoms that's unique to Gulf War veterans," he added.