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Our Longest U.S. War

Although the causes of Gulf War illness are not known, experts have said the toxic smoke from burning oil fields could be among the causes. Photo by U.S. Army.

Medical Treatments for Gulf War Illness Remain Elusive

August 2 marks the 22nd anniversary of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.  What began as a dispute over the Rumaila oil fields sparked the Persian Gulf War.  The conflict that began as the Gulf War continues through the present as the Iraq War and is the longest war in U.S. history.  While there are some major improvements in medical care and benefits, much unfinished business remains for Veterans who deployed to war since 1990.

From Desert Shield to New Dawn

What started as Operation Desert Shield to protect Saudi Arabia in 1990 became Desert Storm in 1991 when U.S. troops invaded Kuwait and Iraq, removing Iraqi troops from Kuwait.  Then there was Provide Comfort and dozens of other military operations while sanctions remained in place from 1991 through 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq a second time under Operation Iraqi Freedom.  The military recently gave the conflict a new name in August 2010: Operation New Dawn.

Under the law, the period of war in Southwest Asia remains open (38 USC 101(33), 38 CFR 3.317).  President Barack Obama withdrew nearly all our troops from Iraq in December 2011, yet a few remain guarding our embassy, and many more remain on ships and stationed on land protecting nearby countries such as Kuwait.  The conflict has not officially ended.

Key Facts About Gulf War / Iraq War / Afghanistan War

Here are some facts about 22 years of war in Southwest Asia.  The U.S. deployed more than 3.5 million service members (the military includes Afghanistan, making an exact count difficult).  About one million of those deployed service members remain in the military today.  Of the 2.5 million who deployed to the war zones and who are now Veterans, more than one million have sought medical treatment at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers.  More than one million have filed disability claims against VA.  Of those deployed, more than one million U.S. service members deployed twice or more.

The consequences of our longest U.S. war are significant.  Nearly 10,000 new Gulf War / Iraq War / Afghanistan War Veterans flood into VA medical facilities each month. Top experts agree the human and financial costs escalate as the war drags on without end: as high as $1 trillion for healthcare and benefits for veterans deployed since 2001, plus trillions of dollars more in military expenditures and other economic costs.

In the past year, President Obama took major steps to improve VA for our returning Gulf War Veterans, including supporting key legislation when he was a U.S. Senator.  Under the law, Veterans deployed to a war zone receive five years of free VA medical care, starting from the date of discharge.  VA’s budget increased by $40 billion in the past few years to meet the surge of demand for both Gulf War and Vietnam War Veterans.  Through VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, VA linked nine medical conditions to Gulf War Veterans’ deployment to Southwest Asia, thereby expediting claims and healthcare for Veterans with those conditions.  Based on Gulf War legislation dating to 1998 and decades of scientific research, President Obama issued new regulations streamlining how VA processes disability claims for posttraumatic stress disorder.

The Gulf War’s Toxic Legacy

Gulf War illness remains a significant challenge, from 1990 through the present.  From the 1990 – 1991 period, more than 250,000 Veterans are estimated ill, according to scientists at the Institute of Medicine and a Congressionally-chartered VA advisory committee. The science is settled: Gulf War illness is a real physical condition, and it is not psychiatric in nature.

One of the toughest areas for Gulf War Veterans remains winning VA disability claims. According to a 2011 report, only 55 percent of the 36,794 Gulf War illness claims filed by 1990 – 1991 veterans under a 1994 law were approved by VA. That’s a significant improvement from 1998, when VA approved less than 10 percent of the Gulf War undiagnosed illness and related claims, prompting much outrage from Veterans and Congress.

As of early 2012, VA reports an additional 417,703 Veterans deployed to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts were diagnosed by VA with “ill defined conditions,” similar to Gulf War illness.  The enormous and widespread use of open air burn pits add to the legacy of toxic battlefields.

Even with action by VA, more needs to be done for the 250,000 Veterans who continue suffering with Gulf War illness.  After 22 years of war in Southwest Asia, the overarching high priority for Gulf War Veterans and their families is finding medical treatments.

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