As the 20-year anniversary of Desert Storm looms, one out of four veterans who served there are sick, even as veterans advocates and the Veterans Affairs Department still bicker.
It comes down to this: Veterans believe they have evidence showing that chemical exposure caused their ailments and that VA refuses to acknowledge those studies.
Veterans say VA instead continues to focus on studies that address Gulf War veterans' mental health issues, pursuing the idea that the illnesses are all in their heads.
"To date, VA has historically opted not to recognize our condition," said Donald Overton Jr., executive director of Veterans of Modern Warfare. "They are emphasizing stress versus science."
But VA officials say they are striving to be transparent, that their newest research is based on more than 400 studies, and that the "mindfulness" and "mood and memory" research they have proposed is not about mental health, but about trying to relieve the pain issues so many Gulf War veterans face.
The disagreements came to a head at a House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing July 27.
Everyone at the hearing acknowledged that VA, as well as military officials, handled Gulf War veterans badly in the beginning by inferring that they were making up their illnesses or that their rashes and neurological issues were caused by post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Consider for a moment that all of the fine men and women were considered in excellent health and 'deployable' when they went to war," said Charles Cragin, chairman of VA's Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans. "In many instances, shortly after their return home, these veterans began complaining of feeling ill and seeking help. Many of them were turned away as 'malingerers' or having a 'psychosomatic illness.' "
In August 2009, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki asked his chief of staff John Gingrich to review how VA handles Gulf War vets. That led to a report, released in May, that recommended seven areas in need of attention. VA also recently released new training documents for doctors and claims adjudicators that explain environmental factors troops may have been exposed to, as well as how to document and get benefits for those veterans.
Some of the problems stem from misunderstandings, but those are rooted in 20 years of mistrust that is not easily dispelled. Now, any cancellation of a project, any support for stress studies, any bureaucratic delays in funding or research are seen as efforts to avoid providing benefits and care for Gulf War vets.
"VA staff is not listening to our concerns," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense and a former VA employee. "The two things we don't want are more false promises and more stress research. We've waited 20 years for answers about why we're ill." New studies on the horizon
VA just announced three new Gulf War illness studies:
• A five-year study on the impact of resistance-exercise training to treat chronic musculoskeletal pain
• A four-year study on therapies to enhance mood and memory, aiming to improve cognitive function and reverse depressive and anxiety-like behaviors with anti-depressants, antioxidants and exercise.
• A two-year pilot on "mindfulness-based stress reduction."
Gingrich said those studies are aimed at reducing pain. He said his wife has fibromyalgia, and noted that learning how to reduce physiological stress could help her pain.
"We don't know the cause, so now we're looking at the symptoms," he said. "This isn't the only thing we're doing."
He also acknowledged why the advocates might not trust VA's take on the issue, using an analogy from his own time as a soldier during the Gulf War.
"When trust is broken, the unit is dysfunctional," he said. "The trust has been broken. We can't change 20 years of history. But I think Secretary Shinseki has made it very clear it is our job to be advocates for veterans 24-7."