If the victims of Gulf War syndrome are ever to be treated justly by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the first step came last week.
The VA said it would review potentially thousands of disability claims and update regulations affecting veterans, suggesting that some may finally get the compensation they deserve for service to their country. Roughly 200,000 veterans claim to suffer from various combinations of fatigue, sleep disorders, headaches, memory loss, rashes and joint and muscle pain — but many have been denied adequate medical care and benefits.
The first Gulf War has been over for 19 years, but many veterans are still living with the debilitating effects. Their stories are tragic, told by formerly vigorous fighting troops who now take handfuls of pills every day to function. The VA says that 85 percent of veterans who filed claims after fighting in the Persian Gulf in 1990-1991 have been granted benefits for at least one medical ailment. But this obscures what the veterans say is the crux of their issue: the agency often does not recognize the totality of their health problems as related to military service, meaning they don't get the benefits they need.
A host of possible explanations have been posited over time for why so many of the nearly 700,000 troops deployed during the first Gulf War have ongoing medical issues.
In 1996, the Pentagon said up to 15,000 troops may have been exposed to nerve agents during a demolition operation of Iraqi munitions stores. The next year, the Pentagon disclosed that nearly 100,000 troops may have been exposed to nondamaging levels of Iraqi poison gas. A survey released in 1999 suggested that experimental drugs given to up to 300,000 troops to protect against nerve gas may have led to chronic conditions. Other theories include pesticide exposures and oil well fires. But the Pentagon has maintained that nothing has been conclusively shown to link the illnesses to the war — despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on studies — which is why so many veterans have had difficulty getting their benefit claims fully approved.
The pendulum started to shift when the Obama administration charged a task force with redefining how ill veterans are treated. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki calls the task force's recommendations a "new approach" to how these veterans will be compensated by the VA. Those are promising words and hopefully not empty ones.