The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is putting together legislation to give autonomy back to a Gulf War illness advisory committee that has been stripped of its independence over the past year. The legislation would give the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses independent budget control and would require that its members be appointed by congressional veterans committees.
“The committee is essentially having its legs cut out from underneath it,” said Diane Zumato, legislative director for AMVETS, a veterans’ service organization. “Veterans Affairs had a good idea in having this oversight group, and now it seems that they don’t really like what they’re hearing because the group isn’t parroting what VA is saying.”
Last week, Veterans Affairs notified the advisory committee that it could no longer release committee reports or recommendations without written VA approval. In the past year, Veterans Affairs has:
• Notified the advisory committee members that all but one of them would be replaced.
• Ended the tenure of Jim Binns, a Vietnam veteran and former principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense under President George H.W. Bush, as chairman of the board.
• Removed its charge to review the effectiveness of VA research.
• Moved back toward looking at stress as a cause of Gulf War illness, rather than following up on evidence that it is caused by environmental exposures, such as to insect repellent, anti-nerve agent pills and Sarin gas, as recent studies have shown.
VA did not address the committee’s issues about losing their autonomy directly, but sent a statement about Gulf War illness in general: “VA agrees that there are health issues associated with service in the Gulf War, and is committed to ensuring Gulf War Veterans have access to the care and benefits they have earned and deserve,” the statement reads. “VA is clear in our commitment to treating these health issues and does not support the notion some have put forward that these health symptoms arise as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues that arose as a result of being deployed.”
The statement said that VA appreciates the “valuable advice” the research advisory committee provides “on research studies, plans and strategies aimed at improving our ability to serve Gulf War veterans.”
While legislators were not able to speak about the legislation because it has not been finalized, Zumato said AMVETS members would reach out to every Congress member this week to talk about environmental toxins like those the 1991 Gulf War veterans were exposed to. She said organizers would make an issue of Gulf War illness so more recent vets — as well as future vets — would have access to care for all potential toxic exposures.
“It’s not just Gulf War,” said Zumato, who joined the Women’s Army Corps before it was incorporated into the Army in 1978. “It’s anybody whose been exposed to any kind of toxic environment and now they have a very strong possibility of having illnesses caused by those exposures.”
She said she fears the veterans’ injuries will continue to be ignored, or to be treated as mental health injuries, rather than physical injuries, to avoid having to pay medical costs. VA has said that it disagrees with the advisory committee, and that it agrees Gulf War Illness is a physical ailment.
This week, Binns sent a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki letter that included 16 pages of research review that VA had prohibited the committee from including in its research report.
“That whole 16 pages is basically one example after another of VA’s staff efforts to reintroduce the idea that stress caused this problem,” Binns said. The advisory committee was formed in 1997 after a congressional report found that VA’s work on “Gulf War issues” was “irreparably flawed.”
Congress found that VA had focused most, if not all, of its attention on psychiatric causes of the illness. Symptoms of Gulf War illness include fatigue, muscle pain, cognitive issues, rashes and irritable bowel syndrome. Recently, researchers have found changes in veterans’ brains that signify physical degeneration, and that a greater number of troops were exposed to small doses of sarin gas after the Air Force bombed an Iraqi chemical factory.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is rolling out the VA2Vets Tour to make sure eligible veterans get the benefits that are available to them. The nationwide tour includes 70 RV’s that are set up as mobile vet centers. Over the next year, they will visit every county in Georgia as well as roam the nation to reach as many other counties as possible.
The goal is to be accessible to Veterans who might otherwise not have access to a VA Center. The tour is kicking off in Georgia. According to the VA, Georgia is home to 770,000 veterans, thousands of whom aren’t using, but may be eligible for, benefits through the VA.
These include benefits like health care, help with buying a home, and money for a college education. “59% of Veterans know little to nothing about their benefits and these are life changing benefits,” said Tommy Sowers, assistant secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “They change millions of Veterans lives, they changed my life.”
Vets can come to the mobile centers to get information, meet with counselors, and even sign up for benefits right there on the spot. One of the first stops on the tour was at Georgia Tech University. PHD student Mock Abdelaal served in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I served in Iraq and I was there for the invasion,” he said.
Abdelaal stopped by the mobile vet center. He says he knew the VA was there for him and knew they offered various services, but wasn’t aware of the extent.
“I didn’t realize that I had 5 years of guaranteed medical coverage, cost free … because I’m a combat vet. So I didn’t realize that and I had gone to doctors and paid money,” he said.
He says if he’s not aware of certain benefits, he can only imagine the benefits that older generations are missing out on. He thinks these mobile units will help. “I have high hopes that people can get covered and get taken care of”.