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March 28, 2015

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A long-awaited answer

Report identifies physical reasons for illnesses suffered by Gulf War veterans

More than 200,000 veterans of the first Gulf War have been vindicated by a new report that concludes their multiple health problems stem from their service-related exposure to chemicals.

The report, six years in the making, was written by a congressionally mandated panel headed by a former top official of the Defense Department and assisted by Boston University’s School of Public Health.

This is the first official acknowledgement of what the veterans have been saying all along, that they are suffering from a physical disease. The government’s position has been that they are experiencing a mental condition brought on by post-war stresses or simply suffering from “unknown causes.”

United States and coalition veterans who participated in Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991 drove Iraq’s invading military from Kuwait. Upon returning home, they began reporting multiple physical problems, including memory loss, nausea, headaches, diarrhea, fatigue, breathing difficulties, rashes and muscle and joint aches. Rarely has a Gulf War veteran reported improvement. In fact, most have gotten worse, with many developing brain cancer or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Veterans Affairs hospitals treat the veterans’ symptoms, but the government never made it a priority to discover what was causing them until Congress in 2002 appointed the 15-member Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses.

The committee’s 450-page report identified two sources of exposure that brought on the symptoms — strong insecticides sprayed liberally on and around the veterans during both phases of the war, and PB (pyridostigmine bromide) pills given to combat troops as protection against chemical attacks.

The report also stated that researchers could not rule out oil well fires and the troops’ multiple vaccinations as causes for the illnesses.

Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake has sent the committee’s report to the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine for a review. This is the agency that previously studied the illnesses and reported in 2000 that it could not find any “evidence for a specific cause.”

Congress should take the committee’s findings seriously. It should act to ensure that Gulf War veterans now receive what they have always deserved — treatment for their real illnesses and proper disability payments.

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