KIMBERLY HEFLING,Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Veterans Affairs Department says it will take a second look at the disability claims of what could be thousands of Gulf War veterans suffering from illnesses they blame on their war service, the first step toward potentially compensating them nearly two decades after the war ended.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said the decision is part of a "fresh, bold look" his department is taking to help veterans who have what is commonly called "Gulf War illness" and have long felt the government did little to help them. The VA says it also plans to improve training for medical staff who work with Gulf War veterans, to make sure they do not simply tell vets that their symptoms are imaginary — as has happened to many over the years.
"I'm hoping they'll be enthused by the fact that this ... challenges all the assumptions that have been there for 20 years," Shinseki told The Associated Press in an interview.
The changes reflect a significant shift in how the VA may ultimately care for some 700,000 veterans who served in the Gulf War. They also could improve the way the department handles war-related illnesses suffered by future veterans, because Shinseki said he wants standards put in place that do not leave veterans waiting decades for answers to what ails them.
Steve Robertson, legislative director of the American Legion, a veterans' group, and a Gulf War veteran himself who has struggled with his own health issues such as joint problems and chronic fatigue, said Friday the decision is welcome news.
"I can assure that there are Gulf War veterans who have been fighting this issue since 1991-92," Robertson said. "The ones I've talked to are very, very upset that they've had to fight this battle."
Robertson said many veterans could not work because of health problems, but couldn't get medical help from the government because they couldn't prove their illnesses stemmed from their war service.
"If you had an invisible wound it was kind of like come back when you have hard evidence that you got it in the theater of operation," Robertson said.
The decision comes four months after Shinseki opened the door for as many as 200,000 Vietnam veterans to receive service-related compensation for three illnesses stemming from exposure to the Agent Orange herbicide.
About 175,000 to 210,000 Gulf War veterans have come down with a pattern of symptoms that include rashes, joint and muscle pain, sleep issues and gastrointestinal problems, according to a 2008 congressionally mandated committee that based the estimate on earlier studies.
But what exactly caused the symptoms has long been unanswered. Independent scientists have pointed to pesticide and pyridostigmine bromide pills, given to protect troops from nerve agents, as probable culprits. The 2008 report noted that since 1994, $340 million has been spent on government research into the illness, but little has focused on treatments.
A law enacted in 1994 allows the VA to pay compensation to Gulf War veterans with certain chronic disabilities from illnesses the VA could not diagnosis. More than 3,400 Gulf War have qualified for benefits under this category, according to the VA.
The VA says it plans to review how regulations were written to ensure the veterans received the compensation they were entitled to under the law. The VA would then give veterans the opportunity to have a rejected claim reconsidered.
The VA doesn't have an estimate of the number of veterans who may be affected, but it could be in the thousands.
Of those who deployed in the Gulf War, 300,000 submitted claims, according to the VA. About 14 percent were rejected, while the rest received compensation for at least one condition.
On the Net:
Veterans Administration: http://www.va.gov