Coffman: VA Gulf War Illness treatment ‘embarrassing'

At the end of a March 13 congressional hearing on how well the Department of Veterans Affairs is treating veterans with Gulf War Illness (GWI), Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said – as a Gulf War veteran – he found VA’s conduct "embarrassing" on the issue.

Coffman, chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, then said to the VA witnesses: "I have to ask you, is anybody a Gulf War veteran that’s on this panel right now?"

None of them were. "If there were Gulf War veterans in senior positions in the (VA), I don’t think we’d be here today," Coffman responded, before adjourning the hearing with a sharp rap of his gavel.

The symptoms of GWI, also known as Gulf War Syndrome, include chronic fatigue, muscle pain, diarrhea, rashes and cognitive problems. Suggested causes include exposure to smoke from burning oil wells, depleted uranium or sarin nerve agents.

The hearing revealed that VA has been less than aggressive in developing effective treatments for GWI, which is still perceived by some at the department as a psychological – not physical – condition. More than 20 years after the First Gulf War ended on Feb. 28, 1991, VA has yet to find a cure for a disease that reportedly affects some 250,000 of nearly 700,000 veterans from that war.

The American Legion has urged VA to identify and develop treatments for GWI. At its August 2012 national convention in Indianapolis, the Legion’s membership passed two resolutions on the illness. One resolution called upon VA "to devote the appropriate resources to finding effective medical treatments to alleviate the unexplained physical symptoms of Gulf War veterans," including "the health of women Gulf War veterans."

The second resolution called upon Congress to pass legislation that would "reinstate and extend the presumptive period for service connection of Gulf War veterans with undiagnosed illnesses indefinitely."

More recently, at its annual Washington Conference last February, the Legion recognized the work of Army Maj. Michael Chagaris, who suffered from GWI and convened a medical team to investigate the cause of his illness. The team discovered that Chagaris’ symptoms of chronic fatigue, pain, and difficulty in sleeping were caused by "Q Fever," a variant of a disease that is common throughout the Middle East. Beginning in January 2011, Chagaris took two prescribed antibiotics for 18 months; his symptoms went away and have not returned.

Chagaris noted that, initially, two doctors who examined him concluded that his problems were psychological. "But I knew that a psychosomatic illness couldn’t make my liver and spleen swell." Later, his own medical experts concluded that the illness was not only real but made even worse by Chagaris’ exposure to chemicals during the Gulf War.

VA’s habit of diagnosing GWI as a psychological problem was noted by more than one panelist at the hearing. Dr. Lea Steele of Baylor University testified that symptoms of the illness "are not explained by established medical or psychiatric diagnoses."

Steele said that, "in some sectors within VA, there appears to have been backward movement, with actions that seem intended to ignore the science and minimize the fact that there is a serious medical condition resulting from military service in the 1991 Gulf War."

Claiming that VA "continues to provide mixed signals, and vague or inaccurate representations concerning the reality and nature of Gulf War Illness," Steele pointed out that VA’s current study of Gulf War veterans "does not assess Gulf War Illness symptoms."

"From my perspective as a scientist who has worked in this area for many years, it is time to get this right," Steele said. "And certainly the many thousands of veterans who have suffered with Gulf War illness for more than 20 years would say it is long past time."

Gulf War veteran Anthony Hardie told the subcommittee there are "still no proven effective treatments for Gulf War Illness patients at VA medical centers, where they are often still thought to be psychosomatic. No VA newsletters to keep Gulf War veterans informed. No implementation of expert advisors’ strategic plans and recommendations. No consistent, reliable medical surveillance of Gulf War veterans…."

A 2010 report by the Institute of Medicine confirmed research that GWI is a unique physical diagnosis (not psychiatric) in nature, which likely involves the interplay between environmental agents and individual genetics.

Referring to the Chagaris case, Hardie said, "Many of us heard recently of an American Legion Iraq War veteran, whose longstanding symptoms were found to be caused by Q-Fever. After appropriate treatment, he was essentially cured. It is unconscionable that DoD and VA do not perform comprehensive infectious disease and immunological testing in veterans returning from overseas areas where such diseases are endemic."

Hardie recommended that Congress should pass legislation requiring such testing to identify, treat or definitively rule out an established listing of debilitating, chronic infectious diseases endemic to southwest Asia deployments.

"Despite all the best promises and intentions, actions speak louder than words," Hardie concluded. "VA continues unabated in its long tradition of violating Gulf War veterans’ trust."

Victoria Davey of the Veterans Health Administration reminded the subcommittee that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki established a Gulf War Veterans Illnesses Task Force in 2009. "The task force’s mission is to ensure that VA maintains a focus on the unique needs of Gulf War veterans," she said. "It was chartered to conduct a comprehensive review of VA’s programs to support this population of veterans, develop an overarching action plan to advance service to them, and ultimately to improve their satisfaction with the quality of services and support VA provides."

GWI symptoms are quite serious, Davey said, but, "Unfortunately, we do not yet know the cause, but a complex combination of environmental hazards, exposures and individual genetic characteristics may be behind these symptoms."

At one time, the causes for a variety of illnesses suffered by Vietnam War veterans was unknown to VA. In July 1983, The American Legion sponsored an independent study on the effects of exposure to Agent Orange on veterans from that war. Results of the "American Legion-Columbia University Study of Vietnam-era Veterans" were delivered to Congress six years later.

Today, many of America’s Vietnam War-era veterans receive disability compensation for illnesses caused by exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides.


National Commander James E. Koutz calls for thorough investigation into allegations VA supressed evidence related to Gulf War Illness.


  1. I have been trying to get meaningful treatment from the VA for 20 years now and I am no better off now then I was when I started seeking treatment. When I first started come to the VA back in 1995 I was treated like I was "making it all up" or that I was there to try to get some prescription pain pills to sell. I have not gone one day since returning from the Gulf War without a splitting headache and when my primary care asked neurology to have a look their response was "we cannot look at everyone with a headache" When my primary care asked the Pain Clinic to have a look at me they said "No, his BMI is 40" well, when you have cronic conditions of fatigue, headaches, muscle pain and spasm it is really hard to even get out of bed, so yes over the years I have gained weight but that in no way should be a reason to deny me treatment. How about you help with the pain and fatigue, then I can begin to claim my life back and drop weight! The fact is my VA Hospital has not a clue what to do, their solution is 800mg Motrin and Gapentin (spelling). It is an pitiful that Main VA Hospitals do not have at least one trained Physician who knows what research has been done and the best treatments out there for us suffering. To add insult to injury twice I have filed for disability from my Persian Gulf Illness and have been denied twice, for everything eventhough there are 20 years of medical records proving my claims. I see how eager the VA is to brag about clearing appears nobody takes the time to read before denying the Veterans claim so it is no wonder how they are clearing the backlog.
  2. I could write your comment as my own!!! It just dawned on me that my VA Gp has never even asked me if I was deployed during GW. also have taken Gapentin and now take 300mg of pregablin (lyrica)
  3. As I have previously stated on social media sites, much respect and appreciation to Past AL National Commander Koutz for being the only leader of a major VSO to speak out in March 2013 against this shameful behavior by the VA. I thank the Legion for this leadership and request that my Persian Gulf War comrades and I not continue to be forsaken by the VA and the public-at-large. We need credible legislation instead of poorly written laws that the VA ignores. Please support action like the recently passed HR 4261, now onto the Senate, and hold the VA accountable. If not for us -- Who already feel abandoned and have suffered and died for over 20 years -- then at least for the GWOT vets/Iraqi Theater that were exposed to some of the same toxins contained in that county's soil and air.
  4. The treatment is a disgrace but improving. Just having the VA acknowledge GWI (FM/CFS) was a huge step. Part of the problem is every one of us are showing a little different symptoms. What helps one vet's symptoms does not work on another vet. I've found that they like simple things that can get checked off on a box. BTW, as a DS vet I can vouch for the soldiers in the above photo as being 100% US troops. Couldn't tell you if they were soldiers or Marines though, harder to tell us apart back then. What threw mjpanzer I think is the old LBE versus the fancy new velcro stuff. LOL.
  5. It only stands to reason that when a body goes from one environment to another that body could suffer theretofor diseases be they mental or physical. Why did it take 6 years to complete the American Legion - Columbia University study to congress?
  6. The treatment of Desert Storm veterans is a disgrace. I am an OIF veteran. But in talking about US veterans, you used a picture of Brits. Did no one notice that?
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.