What happened ?
In 2008 VA’s Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ illness (RAC), an independent board mandated by Congress in 1998 after strenuous efforts by veterans advocates, published a report. The report contained medical evidence that Gulf War illness is a physical condition, not a psychiatric condition induced by stress as previously claimed by VA.
Finally, Gulf War veterans had hard science to back their previously disregarded claims.
In 2010 Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired Army General, ordered VA to re-examine all previously denied claims for Gulf War illness as part of a broader effort to address the growing problem Gulf War veterans were experiencing and expressed concern for the government’s lack of effort to help these Gulf War era veterans.
Secretary Shinseki appointed one of his own former officers, Colonel John Gingrich, U.S. Army retired, to head the task force addressing Gulf War Illness because Mr. Gingrich had a personal stake in the issue – several of the soldiers who served under him were dealing with health issues resulting from their service in the Gulf War.
It was believed that Secretary Shinseki’s appointment of Mr. Gingrich heralded the arrival of formal recognition of the issues Gulf War veterans were experiencing. “We’re talking about a culture change, that we don’t have a single clinician or benefits person saying ‘you don’t really have Gulf War Illness, this is only imaginary’ or ‘you’re really not sick’”, Mr. Gingrich stated in 2010.
The same year, Secretary Shinseki signed a broad Charter for the RAC to advise him on Gulf War illness. Once again, Gulf War veterans were felling the momentum of their cause and this time, it seemed, the Secretary himself was on their side.
Tragically, the hopes of Gulf War veterans dipped drastically in 2012 when the RAC annual report stated that there was a “broad rollback of progress” and that “the strategic plan was effectively gutted… eliminating its focus and urgency”. Shockingly the committee then reported that “discredited government positions from the 1990’s and early 2000’s were being readopted by VA “notwithstanding the fact that they are now contrary to well-established science”. This report included an assertion by VA that it is now “unknown” if Gulf War illness is psychiatric in nature or not. Further, “A major survey of Gulf War veterans configured to understate the incidence of multi-symptom illness and overstate the incidence of psychiatric illness was allowed to proceed based on false representations by Office of Public Health staff to the Secretary’s office”.
In March of 2013 a whistleblower testified to Congress that VA intentionally misled the public about research that would lead to costly benefits for veterans afflicted with Gulf War illness.
The final blow to Gulf War veterans landed in May of 2013 when the RAC was gutted and all but defunded by Shinseki himself in a complete reversal of his words and deeds from 2010. The Secretary’s new chief of Staff Jose Riojas ordered that members of the Committee board be replaced by VA employees and the remainder were to be fired.
As the RAC was being systematically dismantled, the science progressed. Last month researchers at Georgetown University found biological evidence of a neurological basis for Gulf War illness.
What happened at VA? Did the agency decide that the fight just wasn’t worth it, even for our own soldiers? The purpose of an independent advisory panel is to provide VA with invaluable input for the research needed for treatments and benefits– information that is not to be disregarded simply because it is less overwhelming than the logistics of providing treatment and compensation for 250,000 ill veterans. Gulf War veterans, like all veterans, deserve better than this.