James H. Binns, a Vietnam War veteran, chaired the congressionally mandated Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses from 2002 to 2014.
America's memory of the 1991 Gulf War has faded, but we must remember the 697,000 U.S. veterans who drove the Iraqi army from Kuwait 30 years ago this month -- especially the one in four who lost their health to toxic exposures serving their country. That country refuses to care for them.
The inauguration of a president who personally understands the terrible consequences of toxic wounds to veterans and their families inspires hope that help may finally be coming.
The Gulf War was hailed at the time as a great victory, with U.S. casualties limited to 148 dead and 467 wounded. Today, we know that at least 175,000 American servicemen and women returned home with constant pain; fatigue; and gastrointestinal, memory and chronic neurological problems now referred to as Gulf War Illness. They will not be celebrating this anniversary.
All Americans should remember the Gulf War as these veterans do – just as we should remember that in every major conflict of the past half-century, casualties from toxic wounds have exceeded those from bombs and bullets.
American battle casualties in the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq currently total 5,458 dead and 53,250 wounded. More than 213,000 veterans have reported respiratory diseases, cancers and other protracted health problems to the Department of Veterans Affairs' registry for burn pits, the massive fire pits on U.S. bases where waste was incinerated with jet fuel.
Each of these tragedies has been a case of "friendly fire." Gulf War illness was triggered by anti-nerve gas pills the military ordered troops to take and pesticides sprayed to protect them from insect-borne diseases, according to reports of a congressionally mandated public advisory committee appointed by the secretary of Veterans Affairs. But the VA maintains that current evidence does not support a clear association.
"It never dawned on us that we may have done it to ourselves," acknowledged now-retired Lt. Gen. Dale Vesser, who led a Pentagon investigation. Low-level nerve gas released by U.S. destruction of Iraqi weapons facilities was also a likely factor.
In every instance, the government has resisted admitting responsibility for decades. It denied that Agent Orange exposure caused adverse health effects for 20 years after Vietnam -- 40 years for many illnesses. The VA currently rejects more than 80% of Gulf War illness claims, according to a Government Accountability Office investigation. It also denies 78% of burn pit claims.
This refusal to admit the problem has implications beyond not paying compensation and health care bills. Some toxic wounds such as brain cancer are death sentences. But others, such as debilitating gastrointestinal issues and migraines that never end, are potentially treatable with the right research. A 2010 National Academies of Sciences report called for a renewed national research effort to treat Gulf War illness. The recommendation echoed the 2008 recommendation of the research advisory committee appointed by the VA secretary. The VA ignored both.
Ill veterans have lobbied Congress to create a Gulf War illness treatment research program within the Department of Defense, which shows great promise despite its small budget. But the VA and DoD have spent far more on slanted studies designed to promote fictions that Gulf War illness is psychological and toxic substances aren’t toxic. Had this money been spent on the right targets, it is likely veterans would have access to effective treatments today.
Instead, the government has followed a policy that veterans call "deny until they die." It becomes a cost issue. When a National Academies of Sciences panel recommended using the term "Gulf War illness," the VA’s undersecretary for compensation and benefits objected that it would "imply a causal link between service in the Gulf and poor health which could necessitate … disability compensation for veterans."
VA officials still reject the name.
This immoral policy is doomed to failure. Ultimately, the truth comes out, as the VA had to admit with Agent Orange. The government ends up paying immense compensation anyway, but it is too late to improve veterans' health and save some veterans lives.
There may still be cause to celebrate this anniversary. President Joe Biden has expressed deep concern about burn pit exposures and their likely role in the death of his son Beau. Congress has recently shown bipartisan displeasure with burn pit claims outcomes, encouraged by former VA Secretary David Shulkin.
The time is ripe and long overdue for a total reversal of government attitudes toward toxic wounds.
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