Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) thanks Subcommittee Chairman Mitchell, Ranking Member Roe, and members of the Subcommittee for inviting us to testify about our recommendations for improving government policies for our nation’s 250,000 ill Gulf War veterans. Congress remains a loyal friend of our Gulf War veterans by holding hearings, passing legislation, and conducting vital oversight hearings.
With me today is my good friend Steve Robinson, a fellow Gulf War veteran and the former Executive Director at the National Gulf War Resource Center, a position I once held. Also with me is Thomas Bandzul, our VCS Associate Counsel. Steve, Thomas, and several ill Gulf War veterans assisted VCS with preparing this statement.
VCS is here today because Gulf War veterans are dissatisfied and disappointed with the actions of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). VA is not listening to our concerns about our illnesses associated with our deployment to the 1991 Gulf War. VA does not listen to advisory panels created by Congress or VA. VA does not listen to expert scientists. VA does not even listen to Congress. Two decades of inaction have already passed. Gulf War veterans urgently want to avoid the four decades of endless suffering endured by our Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange. VA’s actions are unfortunate and disastrous for our nation’s 250,000 ill Gulf War veterans.
Veterans for Common Sense sends up a red star cluster for Congress, VA, and America to see. In military terms, VCS asks VA for cease fire. VCS urges VA leadership to stop and listen to our veterans before time runs out, as VA is killing veterans slowly with bureaucratic delays and mismanaged research that prevent us from receiving treatments or benefits in a timely manner.
VCS is here urging VA to issue regulations so Gulf War veterans can learn why we are ill, obtain medical care, and receive disability benefits for our medical conditions scientists agree are associated with our Gulf War deployment during 1990 - 1991.
After twenty years of war, we are done waiting. VCS urges VA to act now and provide research, treatment, and benefits. As a Gulf War veteran, I have watched too many of my friends die without answers, without treatment, and without benefits. In a few cases, veterans completed suicide due to Gulf War illness and the frustration of dealing with VA. VCS asks Congress and VA to keep this in mind when evaluating VA policies.
Our statement contains a copy of our formal petition to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki urging to VA promulgate regulations under the Administrative Procedure Act (5 USC Section 551) so our veterans can obtain answers to the questions about why 250,000 veterans remain ill, treatment for veterans’ conditions, and benefits so our veterans do not fall through the economic cracks due to disabilities.
VCS asks Congress to intervene if VA fails to act now. VCS asks Congress to continue holding oversight hearings and to pass legislation to implement our petition if VA continues ignoring the needs of our veterans, ignoring the laws passed by Congress, and ignoring the peer-reviewed and published findings of our nation’s top scientists.
Gulf War Illness
VCS is here today urging action by Congress because the scope of the healthcare and disability challenges facing our Gulf War veterans is real and increasing in size. VA officially reports 265,000 of the veterans deployed between 1990 and 1991 sought medical care and 248,000 filed disability claims by 2008, the last time VA released official statistics about veterans from the 1991 conflict.
VCS estimates VA spends up to $4.3 billion per year for Gulf War veterans’ medical care and benefits. However, VA has never actually revealed the financial costs, and VA has indicated no intention the agency plans to release those facts. VA’s failure to release information about the human and financial costs of war reveal VA remains without the fundamental facts needed to monitor Gulf War veteran policies.
In 2008, VA's Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illness (RAC) estimated as many as 210,000 Gulf War veterans suffer from multi-symptom illness.
In 2009, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) agreed the exposures and illnesses are real, impacting as many as 250,000 veterans of the 1991 invasion Iraq. Both the RAC and IOM studies were mandated by the “Persian Gulf Veterans Act of 1998.”
Gulf War veterans are hoping for improvements with the new administration. In August 2009, VA created a new Gulf War Task Force under the leadership of Gulf War veteran and VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich. We look forward to VA’s testimony today with the hope that VA will offer new, substantive regulations for our Gulf War veterans who need answers, healthcare, and benefits. We do thank VA for taking the precedent-setting initiative of proposing policy via the Federal Register on April 1, 2010. VCS submitted detailed comments to VA about the Draft Task Force report on May 3, 2010.
However, VCS recommendations to VA’s Chief of Staff John Gingrich appear to have fallen on deaf ears. The only VA action since January 2009 was a paltry $2.8 million for stress research announced on July 21, 2010. Only VA’s Research Office, in a vacuum without input, wants this research. VA’s systemic failures reveal significant problems remain at VA. If VA Secretary Shinseki won’t fix VA’s Research Office, then Congress must intervene and place Gulf War research outside of their area of responsibility.
VCS also urges Secretary Shinseki to investigate the improper and arbitrary termination of essential Gulf War illness research. A July 15, 2009 VA IG report concluded $75 million in Gulf War illness research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW) was “impeded” by VA (page iv, IG “Review of Contract No. VA549-P-0027”). Without any reasonable scientific basis, VA arbitrarily terminated UTSW research, potentially undermining more than 15 years of critical inquiry. VCS remains outraged VA’s Research Office has not been held accountable.
On November 19, 2009, VCS filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with VA to determine the extent of the VA internal sabotage. VA has not released any information about who “impeded” Gulf War illness research. On June 29, 2010, VCS filed a formal appeal under FOIA with VA’s General Counsel to obtain documents about the cabal of VA staff intentionally delaying research and treatment for our veterans.
VCS also urges VA to investigate the adverse health impact of depleted uranium, a radioactive toxic waste used as ammunition. On August 19, 1993, then-Army Brigadier General Eric Shinseki signed a memorandum confirming that on June 8, 1993, the Deputy Secretary of Defense ordered the Army Secretary to “Complete medical testing of personnel exposed to DU contamination during the Persian Gulf War.” No medical testing was performed. VCS urges VA Secretary Shinseki to take the rare opportunity for a second chance and complete the research ordered 17 years ago. In February 2010, VCS President Dan Fahey requested DU research during a conference call with VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich. To date, VA has not conducted DU research.
Third, other than a VA-VCS conference call in February 2010, VA has excluded Veterans for Common Sense from participating in any meaningful, consistent dialog on the issue of Gulf War illness. The communication from VA is almost always one direction: telling veterans what VA will do with little or no input from veterans until after VA has reached a final, irreversible decision. VA’s continued insulation is the main reason why VCS urges VA to create a permanent Gulf War Veteran Advocacy office.
The needs of our veterans are detailed in two decades of scientific research reviewed by the RAC and IOM as well as countless Congressional investigations, hearings, and reports. However, VA’s Research Office has failed Gulf War veterans for two decades. This absolutely vital hearing represents VA’s last chance to get it right so Gulf War veterans have a reasonable chance at answers, treatments and benefits in our lifetime.
After 20 years of waiting, we refuse to wait on more empty promises from VA. The first step is for Secretary Shinseki and Chief of Staff Gingrich to immediately clean house of VA bureaucrats who have so utterly and miserably failed our veterans for too long. Our bottom line is clear: we urge VA Secretary Shinseki to quickly implement the recommendations we make in our petition sent to VA today. If VA does not immediately take action, we urge Congress to continue holding hearings and passing legislation so VA is held accountable for taking care of our veterans. Our waiting must end now.
VCS presented the following petition to VA for new Gulf War veteran regulations:
Veterans for Common Sense
VCS Petition to VA to Improve Regulations for Gulf War Veterans
The Honorable Eric Shinseki
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Shinseki:
Under the Administrative Procedures Act (5 USC Section 551), Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) petitions the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to promulgate regulations to improve the delivery of healthcare and benefits for the 3.1 million U.S. service members deployed to Southwest Asia since August 2, 1990.
VCS supports the goals of VA leaders to ensure our Gulf War veterans receive answers to the questions about why Gulf War veterans remain ill as well as prompt access to treatment for our medical conditions and disability benefits. We thank you for forming a Gulf War Task Force and for naming your Chief of Staff, John Gingrich, a Gulf War veteran, to lead it. VCS asks VA to issue regulations based on these laws:
Public Law 102-1, enacted on January 14, 1991, authorized the President to start the Persian Gulf War, known at the time as Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Offensive U.S. military action against Iraq began on January 17, 1991.
Public Law 102-25, enacted on April 6, 1991, retroactively established the start date of the Gulf War as August 2, 1990, the date Iraq invaded Kuwait. Neither Congress nor the President have ever ended the Gulf War, and the conflict continues through the present in the geographical area defined by 38 CFR 3.317.
Public Law 102-85, enacted on November 4, 1992, authorized the creation of the Gulf War Registry as well as the Gulf War Veterans Information System (GWVIS). VA began preparing GWVIS reports in 2000, and VA ceased producing the reports in 2008 after VCS observed that VA’s GWVIS reports were incomplete. VA has since confirmed that it failed to update computer programming to identify all disabled Gulf War veterans.
Public Law 103-210, enacted on December 20, 1993, requires VA to provide healthcare on a priority basis (Priority Group 6).
Public Law 103-446, enacted on November 3, 1994, expanded access to VA disability benefits so ill Gulf War veterans could obtain VA medical care under what is commonly referred to as the Undiagnosed (UDX) illness law. Congress found, as a matter of law, Gulf War veterans were exposed to a long list of toxins, including depleted uranium:
Fumes and smoke from military operations, oil well fires, diesel exhaust, paints, pesticides, depleted uranium, infectious agents, investigational [experimental] drugs and vaccines, and indigenous diseases, and . . . multiple immunizations.
Public Law 105-277, enacted October 22, 1998, significantly expanded the list of toxins it presumed Gulf War veterans were exposed to during deployment to Southwest Asia, and mandated contracts between VA and the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine (IOM) to determine if there were associations between deployment and medical conditions suffered by Gulf War veterans.
Public Law 105-368, enacted November 11, 1998, created the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illness (RAC) and expanded Public Laws 103-210 and 103-446. VA was unable to form the RAC until 2002.
Public Law 109-114, enacted November 20, 2005, appropriated $75 million for Gulf War illness research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW) because VA staff steadfastly refused to conduct research into the adverse impact of toxic exposures by claiming veterans were not exposed, not ill, and suffering only from stress. VA objected to the use of a contract to implement this law. However, VA made no effort to convert the contract to grant, thereby revealing VA opposed the research.
VCS List of Ten Recommended VA Actions Regarding Gulf War Veterans
- VA Regulations Acknowledge Scope and Nature of Gulf War Illness
When VA issues regulations regarding Gulf War illness, VCS urges VA to confirm 250,000 Gulf War veterans from the 1990 – 1991 deployment period remain ill after deployment to Southwest Asia during 1990 – 1991, a conclusion supported by thousands of peer-reviewed scientific articles. VA should specifically cite the following three major sources:
IOM: April 2010 findings of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), “Gulf War and Health: Volume 8. Health Effects of Serving in the Gulf War.” After an exhaustive review of peer-reviewed, published research, the IOM concluded as many as 250,000 Gulf War veterans still suffer from multisymptom illness, and the cause is not post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): “The excess of unexplained medical symptoms reported by deployed Gulf War veterans cannot be reliably ascribed to any known psychological disorder.”
RAC: November 2008 report by the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses (RAC), “Gulf War Illness and the Health of Gulf War Veterans: Scientific Findings and Recommendations,” concluded that between 175,000 and 210,000 Gulf War veterans still suffer with multisymptom illness.
VA: Dr. Han Kang, is credited with the important conclusion that one-in-four Gulf War veterans remain ill, in his study, “Health of US Veterans of 1991 Gulf War: A Follow-Up Survey in 10 Years,” published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in April 2009.
- VA Issues Improved Undiagnosed Illness (UDX) Regulations
VCS supports the goals of VA’s new instructions on handling Gulf War veterans’ claims for Undiagnosed Illness (UDX) benefits. VCS asks VA Secretary Shinseki to use his rule-making authority to transform VA’s temporary instructions issued in a “Fast Letter” as permanent VA regulations that can be reviewed and commented on by advocates in a transparent manner.
In 2002, VA staff conducted a thorough review of granted and denied claims among Gulf War veterans at the diagnostic code level. VA staff concluded that VA regional offices with large claim backlogs and without training on UDX claims under 38 CFR 3.317 approved few (about 4 percent) of Gulf War veterans claims. In contrast, VA regional offices with small backlogs that received training from VA Central office approved far more UDX disability benefit claims (about 30 percent). At present, VA has no idea how many UDX claims have been granted or denied.
- VA Notifies As Many Gulf War Veterans as Possible About Changes
Using VA’s Gulf War Master Record listing of nearly all military service members, VA should mail information to each veteran where VA has an address. And VA should use all available national and local VA public relations staff to conduct outreach to the media and veterans about changes in laws and regulations. The information should include a brief description of presumed toxic exposures, research, treatment, and benefits.
- VA Pays Retroactive Benefits for UDX Claims
VA should re-open the disability claim of any Gulf War who asks. VA should pay, when appropriate, retroactive benefits to the earliest possible date allowed under the law starting with the veteran’s first claim against VA. VA should do this based on VA’s illegal act, in 2001, of failing to notify Gulf War veterans about changes in benefits laws (Public Law 107-103) that would have granted access to healthcare and disability compensation for tens of thousands of veterans. VA’s act was illegal because it violated the spirit and intent of the Veterans Claims Assistance Act, where VA is obligated to help veterans with compensation and pension claims. VA should also consider paying any out-of-pocket expenses veterans incurred due to VA’s deliberate policy of failing to notify veterans about the change in law and VA regulations.
- VA Requests Permanent Gulf War Veteran Advocacy Office
VCS urges VA to create a permanent Gulf War Veteran Advocacy Office and staff it with at least five ill, previously deployed Gulf War veterans among a staff of at least nine. The office will serve as the sole clearing house coordinating all Gulf War veteran related matters, reporting directly to the Secretary. Staff will provide input and monitor research, advisory panels, treatment trials, benefit programs, and outreach. VA leaders need a permanent, pro-veteran office to avoid repeating past mistakes. In our view, the needs and voices of Gulf War veterans have been excluded for too long, especially when VA’s Research Office intentionally ignores both veteran and scientific input.
- VA Expands Definition of Gulf War Service
VCS asks the Secretary to use his rule-making authority to update the definition of Gulf War service so it is accurate and conforms with the actual war zone nations and bodies of water where our service members deployed to conflicts on or after August 2, 1990, the official start of the Gulf War.
VA should add Turkey to the list of nations shown in CFR 3.317. DoD records indicate tens of thousands of U.S. service members supporting the 1990 – 1991 Gulf War and subsequent military operations through the present were based in Turkey. The military also lists Turkey as an eligible deployment location for the Southwest Asia Service Medal (SWASM). However, VA excluded Turkey from the definition of the Gulf War theater of operations.
VCS urges VA to add Operation Enduring Freedom (the Afghanistan War, including all nearby nations and bodies of water) as well as Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn (the Iraq War) to the definition of the Gulf War deployment zone so there is no confusion when VA staff are making healthcare and benefit eligibility determinations.
- VA Benefit Eligibility Covers All Deployed Troops Since August 2, 1990
VA should apply scientific findings from IOM, RAC, or other research studies to apply to all veterans deployed to the war zone since August 2, 1990. For example, when a study finds an association for a condition for Operation Desert Storm veterans, then VA regulations should apply to all 3.1 million service members deployed to the war zones since August 2, 1990.
- VA Issues New Regulations for Multisymptom Illness
VCS asks VA Secretary Shinseki to use his rule-making authority to promulgate new regulations expanding disability compensation benefits to veterans with multisymptom illness. In April 2010, the IOM concluded that as many as 250,000 Gulf War veterans remain ill with multisymptom illness associated with their deployment to Southwest Asia. In November 2009, the RAC reached a similar conclusion.
Based on scientific evidence, if a Gulf War veteran can show they were deployed to the Gulf War theater on or after August 2, 1990, and if the Gulf War veteran has a diagnosis of a multisymptom condition, then VA should automatically grant disability benefits and access to medical care.
- VA Issues New Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and Irritable Bowel Regulations
VCS asks Secretary Shinseki to use his rule-making authority to amend the VA benefits rating manual as it pertains to three chronic multisymptom illnesses presumptive for Gulf War Veterans under 38 CFR 3.317. The first of the three presumptive conditions, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), can currently be rated as high as 100 percent depending upon the level of debilitation. VCS agrees CFS ratings should go up to 100 percent because CFS can be totally disabling.
However, Fibromyalgia (FM) can only be rated at a maximum of 40 percent under current VA rules, even though it can be totally and permanently disabling. Since CFS is a diagnosis of last resort, a diagnosis of FM excludes a diagnosis of CFS, even if the veteran is clearly suffering from both debilitating chronic widespread pain and debilitating chronic fatigue. Veterans who may be the worst off may only receive a maximum 40 percent FM rating, even with all the symptoms of CFS. VCS calls for Secretary Shinseki to review these contorted rules so that veterans with FM can be rated as high as 100%, depending upon the severity of symptoms and the level of disability.
Currently, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can only be rated currently to a maximum rating of 30 percent. An IBS rating can be made in conjunction with a rating for CFS or FM (but not both, as previously stated). VCS asks Secretary Shinseki to also review the rules governing the maximum rating for IBS condition to allow for higher ratings relative to the actual severity of symptoms and the level of disability.
- VA Issues New Regulations for Upper Respiratory, Lower Respiratory, Digestive, and Neurological Conditions
Based on scientific evidence, VCS asks Secretary Shinseki to issue regulations and grant presumptive service-connection for upper and lower respiratory, digestive, and neurological conditions to grant presumptive service-connection for these conditions, including but not limited to Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), diagnosed respiratory disorders including but not limited to asthma, bronchitis, bronchiolitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and diagnosed neurological disorders involving pain, cognition, and other widely reported symptoms among Gulf War veterans.
In practical terms, this action item is of enormous significance to ill Gulf War veterans without access to VA care because they are not service-connected. Our goal in requesting new regulations is to allow VA to grant service connection for these conditions so our ill Gulf War veterans can receive the VA medical care they need and earned for conditions scientists concluded are associated with their military service.
VCS respectfully asks VA to respond, in writing, to our formal VCS petition in a timely manner so Gulf War veterans can have the answers they seek, the treatment they need, and benefits they earned without further delay.