June 2, 2004
By THOMAS D. WILLIAMS, Courant Staff Writer
The General Accounting Office strongly criticized the Pentagon for
failing to accurately study conditions leading to undiagnosed illnesses
suffered by Persian Gulf War veterans.
The Defense Department, according to a report issued Tuesday by the
federal watchdog agency, underestimated the exposure of chemical warfare
agents such as nerve and mustard gas. Defense models of the effects of
toxic plumes of chemical agents did not "realistically simulate actual
bombings or demolitions," the GAO report said.
"The GAO report on chemical warfare exposures has driven the final nail
in the coffin of the [Defense Department's] minimized assessments of
those exposed to low levels of deadly gases like sarin and mustard,"
said Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War
"The VA will have to presume anyone with symptoms similar to gas
exposure receives disability benefits," he said.
The GAO issued a second report critical of the Department of Veterans
Affairs, saying it failed to analyze millions of dollars in research on
disabling illnesses affecting service members.
"They [the VA and the Pentagon] wasted millions of dollars looking at
the mental stress theory and it has been conclusively ruled invalid,"
Robinson said, referring to the Pentagon's years of insistence that
veterans were mentally ill from stress and not physically ill from
The critical reports come at a time when thousands of U.S. veterans of
the Balkans, Afghanistan and the current Iraq conflict also are seeking
expert medical help for illnesses.
Almost 697,000 people served during the height of the 1991 war, and
about 581,000 are out of the service. More than half of those retired,
and thus eligible, have made health claims, with more than 230,000
granted, according to Veterans Affairs figures as of November 2002, the
latest figures available.
During that same time period, 11,074 have died. The average age of those
who went to war was 36.
"Low-level exposures to sarin may play a role in the illnesses and
syndromes suffered by more than 125,000 American veterans of the first
Gulf War," U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4th District, said Tuesday.
"For those veterans, and for those fighting in toxic environments today,
only an aggressive research agenda will produce the answers needed to
protect or cure yesterday's, today's and tomorrow's warriors."
Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi said he agreed with the
GAO's conclusions and its recommendations. Already, he said, the VA has
started its assessment of the research and is locating "promising new
areas for research."
But Klaus O. Schafer, acting deputy defense director for chemical and
biological defense, disagreed with the agency.
In a letter, he rejected the GAO's suggestion that the Defense
Department not continue to use its toxic gas plume models to determine
who is and who is not exposed to wartime gases. He said such
"state-of-the-art, validated computer modeling techniques are the most
feasible option to determine what might have happened."
On the other hand, Schafer agreed the Defense Department will not do
further toxic plume models of the bombings and demolition of chemical
bunkers at Khamisiyah, Iraq, during the first Gulf War. Those bombings
occurred weeks after war's end and exposed more than 100,000 troops to