Lanham, Maryland. – Gulf War veterans finally received some long-awaited answers Monday when the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illness (RAC), delivered their newest findings to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). However, greater questions remain whether or not the VA has this significant group of veterans’ best interests at heart or if saving money, not lives, is more important.
“Since its end 23 years ago, the Gulf War has been known for its decisiveness and minimal causalities. But the dangers of war are still claiming causalities today through Gulf War illness,” said Stewart Hickey AMVETS National Executive Director. “I commend the RAC. Their work is making a substantial impact on scientific and clinical thinking about Gulf War Illness. But I wonder what could have been accomplished if the original design and independence of the committee had been adhered to.”
The RAC’s initial report in 2008 was essential in establishing Gulf War illness as a real condition, affecting as many as 250,000 veterans of the 1990-91 Gulf War. Since that time, the independence, oversight role, and provision providing the committee with authority over its own staff and budget were eliminated. In essence, the RAC has been turned into nothing more than an internal VA advisory committee, operating strictly under VA’s authority with little to no connection to the national community.
“If we ever expect to understand GWI, if we ever expect to develop medically appropriate treatments for it, and if we ever hope to truly improve the quality of life for our Gulf War veterans, then continued research, as well as adequate, on-going funding, is absolutely vital,” said Diane Zumatto, AMVETS National Legislative Director. “It is extremely disappointing that the VA often appears to be working at cross-purposes with the RAC and has failed to act on recommendations made by the committee. Our Gulf War veterans deserve better, they have sacrificed their quality of life for our country and are left without the help they deserve from the VA.”
U.S. Representative Mike Coffman (R-CO), along with U.S. Representative Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) and U.S. Representative Michaud (D-ME), recently introduced H.R. 4261, the Gulf War Health Research Reform Act of 2014. This legislation is the product of an extensive investigation by Coffman’s House Veteran’s Affairs Subcommittee for Oversight and Investigation, which found the VA exercising too much control over the RAC, denying their ability to effectively and independently carry out its Congressionally mandated role to improve the lives of Gulf War veterans.
AMVETS has pledged its full support for H.R. 4261 as well as H.R. 4031, the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014, legislation that targets the elimination of the bureaucratic red-tape currently hindering VA leadership’s ability to address systemic strengths and weaknesses in department managers. With H.R. 4261 in concert with H.R. 4031, VA leaders who continue failing the 250,000 ill Gulf War veterans can be removed from the equation, further giving the RAC the support and independence it needs to succeed.
More than just the hindering of the RAC has influenced the veteran community, especially Gulf War veterans, to perceive that the VA is acting at the expense of the very men and women they are supposed to protect. VA has drawn ample media attention when top VA officials questioned the use of the term “Gulf War illness,” and revelations of a “secret wait list” at the Phoenix VA had possible ties to the deaths of 40 veterans awaiting care. Adding to the perception that VA does not care is the noticeable absence of VA Secretary Eric Shinsecki from every RAC on GWI report submission during his term.
“I read it, and listen to it every day,” Hickey said. “In emails, phone calls, and other messages, I hear the stories of Gulf War veterans suffering and losing hope. They feel they have been abandoned by the VA, abandoned by the very government they served. The perception is that the VA is acting like corporate insurance companies, trying to cut expenses by limiting how many claims are filed.”
VA’s most recent report in 2011 shows just how difficult it is for an ill Gulf War veteran to have their claim for benefits approved. Only 20,069 GWI presumptive claims had been approved at the time of VA’s report with a staggering 16,725 that were denied. Compounding things, more than 250,000 Gulf War veterans are suffering from the effects of Gulf War Illness.
A leader since 1944 in preserving the freedoms secured by America’s armed forces, AMVETS provides support for veterans and the active military in procuring their earned entitlements, as well as community service and legislative reform that enhances the quality of life for this nation’s citizens and veterans alike. AMVETS is one of the largest congressionally-chartered veterans’ service organizations in the United States, and includes members from each branch of the military, including the National Guard and Reserves. To learn more visit www.amvets.org.