A U.S. Navy F-14A Tomcat flies over burning Kuwaiti oil wells during Operation Desert Storm. DoD photo

More Gulf War illnesses outreach needed

The American Legion testified to Congress on July 27 that, while veterans service organizations disseminate information about Gulf War illnesses, VA must improve its outreach efforts to thousands of veterans who suffer from such maladies.

Testifying before a House subcommittee, Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division Deputy Director Ian de Planque said in his written statement that, "VA has moved forward to some extent with increased internal education of their medical and benefits-related staff.

"However, the mission of increasing understanding of the medical factors involved for the actual veterans who have served still lags far behind what is necessary," he told the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

American Legion posts across the country provide valuable information to veterans, such as the organization's "Gulf War Era Benefits & Programs" pamphlet, and Legion service officers go through annual training that ensures they have the most current information on Gulf War-related illnesses. But these outreach efforts "do not void VA's responsibility to provide this information directly to veterans," de Planque said.

Since the Gulf War Veterans Illness Task Force published its findings last March, de Planque said VA "rule-making is underway to add additional diseases to the list of those subject to the presumption of service-connection, based on qualifying Gulf War service."

During operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, thousands of veterans were exposed to chemicals, pesticides, oil fires and the psychological stress of SCUD missile attacks (real or false). From these apparent causes sprang various symptoms among Gulf War veterans, including fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes, memory loss and mood swings.

De Planque told the subcommittee that VA, in dealing with Gulf War illnesses, needs to remember "the lessons learned from the long uphill battle faced by Vietnam veterans in dealing with the after-effects of the herbicide Agent Orange.

"As is the case with Agent Orange, research much be continuously examined, and where sound medical principles support the addition of new presumptive conditions - or new understandings of existing conditions - VA must adjust their procedures to ensure these veterans receive equitable benefits," de Planque said.

Last February, the Veterans Benefits Administration issued a training letter to regional VA offices: "Adjudicating Claims Based on Service in the Gulf War and Southwest Asia." It provided background information and explained terms such as "medically unexplained chronic multi-symptom illness." The letter also provided specific procedures for procuring supporting evidence and rating disability claims.

While such training letters can be quite useful, de Planque said The American Legion wants to make sure that both VBA and the Veterans Health Administration are consistent in the way they handle Gulf War illnesses."All too often, in American Legion quality-review visits to (VA) regional offices, we see apparent disconnect between VBA and VHA elements in the claims process," de Planque said. "Without a full understanding by both sides of the equation, veterans' claims will suffer from poor interpretation, and these veterans will continue to slip through the cracks."