Gulf War Vets Home Page

Monday, January 16, 2006

First Gulf War still claims lives
Murray proposes removing time limit for reporting illness


Fifteen years ago today, Operation Desert Storm began, first with an air war, then a Feb. 23 allied ground attack that steamrolled across Iraq in four days.

The initial casualties were few. But they continue. They have drawn the attention of members of Congress, and now one Washington senator believes they demand further investigation.

Over the years, raw data from the Veterans Benefits Administration suggest more than 11,000 of the 696,841 veterans who served in the Persian Gulf have died from various injuries and illnesses, and more than 256,000 have filed claims against the government for veterans compensation or medical care.

Though the federal agency cautions that the data are raw and not reflective of mortality rates, "it's significant because it's ... more than the casualty rates post-Vietnam," Skip Dreps said.

A Vietnam veteran, Dreps serves as government relations director for the Northwest chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America service organization.

Gulf War veterans have battled the government over recognition and care for mystifying illnesses, especially neurological disorders linked to exposure to chemical poisons during and after the war.

Brain cancer deaths, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease) and fibromyalgia now are recognized by the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments as potentially connected to service during the Persian Gulf War.

In September, the Seattle P-I reported about a number of cases of multiple sclerosis among Gulf War vets. And now Sen. Patty Murray has proposed legislation to have those cases investigated.

Since the disease can take a long time to manifest itself, Murray also has proposed in a bill to remove the seven-year limit veterans have after leaving the service to report the illness and get government help. Removing the limit would apply to those in combat service in the war.

The government's seven-year line in the sand doesn't make sense because veterans "may not come down with it (multiple sclerosis) in seven years, it may be 10 or 15 years," she said.

Murray notes that the VA's "MS Center of Excellence" has said there is "considerable evidence that MS precedes symptoms in most patients."

"Most patients with MS have several lesions (shown on an) MRI at the time of their first symptom," she said.

"It's a very difficult and debilitating disease and is often not diagnosed early -- and I know personally because my dad had MS," Murray said recently.

Murray, a member of the Veterans Committee, said she will begin soliciting support for her bill when Congress goes back into session Wednesday.

While there are no official numbers of Gulf War veterans with MS, the 500 veterans who signed onto a support group at, general government figures and anecdotal information from others merit study, she said.

"It seems to me that the numbers are high enough and the scientific evidence is enough that we should err on the side of the veterans in this," Murray said.

Julie Mock, 38, of Woodinville, a Gulf War veteran with MS, calls Murray's support "a godsend. It validates what we've been saying."

Mock is president of the non-profit National Gulf War Resource Center and an advocate for fellow veterans.

Of the estimated 11,000 Gulf War veterans who have died since 1991, more than 2,700 served within the Il Khamisiyah area of Iraq.

Sarin nerve gas was released into the air there after U.S. forces destroyed Iraqi munitions in March 1991. More than 145,000 U.S. troops, a smaller number of allied troops and unknown numbers of Iraqis and others were exposed in the resulting widespread plume.

Mock was one of them.

"It's disturbing," she says of the death statistics from all causes. "I have to say I often wonder whose funeral I'm going to go to.

"Every time you hear about somebody dying, you hear that they were too young to die, or chronically ill and were stabilized that way for a while and then died quickly. And they are a variety of ages."

MS involves an attack upon the central nervous system. Myelin, the protective covering around nerves, is destroyed. Scar tissue called sclerosis remains, resulting in a diverse range of painful, debilitating and baffling symptoms ranging from fatigue to numbness or blindness.

The problem is determining when MS stems from environmental or other sources.

Illnesses among Gulf War veterans have been studied and debated for the past 15 years, at first as "Gulf War Syndrome." Studies have been conducted in allied countries that had fewer troops than the United States, including Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

Here, Congress created the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses in 1998. First appointed by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi in January 2002, its mission is to make recommendations concerning government research relating to the health consequences of military service in Southwest Asia during the Persian Gulf War.

In November, veterans testified at an oversight hearing chaired by U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., to discuss whether the VA was fulfilling its legal mandate to make determinations about Gulf War illnesses.

As the veterans arrived in D.C. spoiling to have their say, however, the VA announced it was funding 12 new research projects to better understand Gulf War illnesses.

A month later, the government announced that $15 million a year for five years was being earmarked in the 2006 budget for specific research into Gulf War illnesses.

Dreps said he and other veterans representatives are angry, feeling the announcements were politically rather than scientifically inspired to blunt veterans' critical testimony.

While "something good may come from the research projects," Dreps said, "shame on us" as a nation for allowing Gulf War veterans to be treated so for 15 years.

"Shame on us," he said.


To learn more about Gulf War-related illnesses and research, see: