WASHINGTON – Even as possibly hundreds of thousands of veterans suffer from a collection of symptoms commonly called Gulf War illness, the government has done too little to find treatments for their health problems nearly two decades after the war ended, a panel commissioned by Congress said.
The advisory panel of medical experts and veterans wants at least $60 million spent annually for research, calling it a "national obligation," according to its report, obtained by The Associated Press.
The report, which goes to the Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake on Monday, said the Defense Department cut research money from $30 million in 2001 to less than $5 million in 2006. Both departments have identified some of their research as "Gulf War research" even when it did not entirely focus on the issue.
"Substantial federal Gulf War research funding has been used for studies that have little or no relevance to the health of Gulf War veterans," the panel concluded.
Independent scientists have declared that the symptoms of veterans of the 1991 Gulf War do not constitute a single syndrome. They have pointed to pesticide, used to control insects, and pyridostigmine bromide pills, given to protect troops from nerve agents, as probable culprits for some of the varied symptoms.
Based on earlier studies, the panel estimates that between 175,000 and 210,000 veterans from the war suffer from a pattern of symptoms related to their service. It notes that about one-quarter to one-third of those who served are affected by complex symptoms at rates higher than those in the military who did not deploy. Symptoms include fatigue, memory loss, pain, headaches, and difficulty sleeping.
"Studies indicate that few veterans with Gulf War illness have recovered over time and only a small minority have substantially improved. ... Few treatments have been studied and none have been shown to provide significant benefit for a substantial number of ill veterans," the panel concluded.
"Regrettably, 17 years after the war, this research still has not provided tangible results in improving the health of ill Gulf War veterans," according to a draft of the 450-page report.
The findings are welcome news to Bobby O'Daniel. The 39-year-old Marine veteran said he has suffered from a hyperactive immune system, joint and muscle pain in his extremities, psychological problems and other issues since he spent several months in the Persian Gulf loading cargo on ships and on land. He said he first noticed problems when he was deployed, but his health has steadily gotten worse since he came home at 21.
O'Daniel, a member of the veterans advocacy group Veterans of Modern Warfare, left the military shortly after his war duty. He said he has been discouraged over the years that more attention was not paid to help these veterans.
"We're the forgotten warriors," said O'Daniel, who lives in Greenville, N.C. "I just feel forgotten."
The panel said that since 1994, the government has spent $340 million for studies associated with Gulf War research. While the research has provided valuable insights, it has not advanced understanding of the problem, the panel said.
In 2004, the VA said it would no longer pay for studies that sought to show combat stress was the primary cause of the veterans' health problems. That decision came after the same advisory panel recommended that the department abandon stress studies and focus on toxic substances that veterans encountered during the war.
In 2006, the panel said congressional action resulted in changes in research at both agencies.
Congress allocated an additional $15 million annually for Gulf War research at VA. The University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas is using the money to identify biological abnormalities associated with Gulf War illness and working to develop tests and treatments.
Lawmakers also set aside $15 million for a research program managed by the Defense Department's Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs.
"Early indications suggest that development at both VA and DOD represent promising new directions in the federal Gulf War research effort," the panel concluded. But, the panel said, it is "far below that warranted by the scope of the problem."
Jim Bunker, the president of the National Gulf War Research Center in Kansas City, Kan., said taking care of the health of the Gulf War veterans has gotten pushed back repeatedly to the needs of veterans from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We feel it's important to look at the veterans coming home now, but we're still pretty sick," Bunker said.