Vet Affairs Preps for Odd Ailments Following Iraq War

Officials from the Departments of Defense (search) and Veterans Affairs (search) say they are prepared to deal with any mystery illnesses that may develop as a result of environmental exposure and other service-related injuries suffered in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Officials had been caught unaware by a rash of illnesses veterans experienced after the first Persian Gulf War.  It remains to be seen whether the government has fully learned the lessons of that experience.

“We believe we have the systems in place,” said Barbara Goodno, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department’s deployment health division. “We’re prepared for the possibility that people might have symptoms that cannot be explained.”

Goodno said that the Defense Department has unleashed a comprehensive network of services – including health care, research, data collection and medical surveillance – that originated after the first war with Iraq. Teams are also on the ground in Iraq keeping an eye on dangerous exposures – everything from potential chemical and biological weapons, to oil fires and the pesticides used to ward off irritating sand flies.

“There really has been a cultural change in military health care,” she said. “Force health protection, it really focuses on sustaining health before, during and following deployment.”

But not everyone is confident that the government is doing everything it can to respond to past problems.

“The lessons of the Gulf War in terms of deployment health and force health are pretty apparent and the DoD is talking the right talk in terms of applying those lessons -- but the rubber has so far not hit the road,” said Larry Halloran, chief of staff for the national security subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee.

After six years of denial following the first Iraq war (search), the Pentagon admitted in 1997 in congressional testimony, that more than 100,000 of the 550,000 troops sent to the Gulf were exposed to deadly sarin, mustard and cyclosarin gases during the destruction of an Iraqi weapons depot in 1991.

Exposures as well as the inoculations given to troops before their deployment have all been implicated as the cause of the mysterious Gulf War illness, which many veterans and doctors say produces a wide variety of symptoms ranging from chronic fatigue, muscular disease and brain damage.

The government has spent over $200 million on more than 200 studies of the illness. According to the National Gulf War Resource Center, while thousands of claims have yet to be adjudicated, approximately 167,000 Persian Gulf vets are receiving compensation today for war-related illnesses.

“There are still a lot of questions and concerns about this matter, but there has clearly been some lessons learned and steps taken in a number of areas,” said Peter Dickinson, spokesman for the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Veterans Affairs spokesman Jim Benson said his agency has educated all of its health care providers on what to look for and how to record symptoms that might indicate a pattern among returning soldiers. In addition, the Pentagon and VA have worked through many of the communication problems that prevented the transfer of medical records and other data in the past, said Benson.

“The VA has really learned a lot from the first Gulf War and it is prepared more than ever for [the veterans'] return from the current Iraq conflict,” Benson said, adding that the government recently established two research facilities to deal directly with war-related illnesses.

However, critics say a huge gap in the system remains because the military has not instituted the most important element of preventative health care included in a public law passed last year:  data collection from extensive physical and mental exams, including blood samples, taken before and after deployment.

“That’s why the whole mystery of the Gulf War illness exists today, because we did not have the data – we couldn’t make the connections because we don’t know when [troops] were exposed, what they were exposed to and when it got into their systems,” said Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resources Center (search) in Washington, D.C.

“They are not doing what Congress intended, by not conducting these examinations,” he said. “They’re not following the law.”

Defense officials said they are conducting extensive pre-deployment screenings for all troops, though depending on their ages and the last time they gave blood, some soldiers are not getting physical exams or blood work.

And while health in the field is monitored, no plan exists for the collection of blood when troops return.  All health care follow-ups will take place at military hospitals and VA, and aren’t mandatory for all troops, said Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. William Winkenwerder in recent testimony.

Winkenwerder and House Government Reform national security subcommittee chairman Christopher Shays, R-Conn., (search) came to loggerheads at a March hearing over whether or not the Pentagon was complying with the new law.

“There is some pent-up frustration there,” said Halloran. “Some efforts have been made on all these fronts, but getting the talk to the walk, we’re still waiting for that.”

In the meantime, Goodno said the Defense Department has created an early warning system for systematic illnesses, as well as a comprehensive plan to treat soldiers once they get home.

More importantly, she added, the government is trying to demonstrate that it does care.

“I think there is a whole different focus on the importance of keeping an open mind and encouraging honesty and candor on the part of the patient, as well as giving them the dignity and compassion they deserve.”