Gulf War Illnesses Office Releases 2nd Annual Report

WASHINGTON, May 19, 1998 (GulfLINK) � Bernard Rostker, the Defense Department's special assistant for Gulf War illnesses, today released the 2nd Annual Report of his group's actions from November 1997 to November 1998. The report, the second since the office was established in November 1996, briefly reviews the events leading up to the establishment of the office and the accomplishments of the past year.

The report is divided into six sections. Rostker provides a review of the events that led to establishment of the office and a brief summation of the first year's efforts. A second section provides a summary of the activities of the second year and recaps the findings of the investigations completed.

"Our second year was a busy one," said Rostker. "In addition to following hundreds of investigative leads and placing multiple reports in development, we released four case narratives and two environmental exposure reports covering topics ranging from depleted uranium and oil well fires to whether chemical warfare agents had been found in a storage tank at a Kuwaiti girls' school."

In addition to focusing on possible exposure issues, the team also established procedures to provide direct assistance to veterans. In the course of an investigation of the handling of medical records during the war, analysts learned that most inpatient records had been sent to the National Personal Records Center in St. Louis, Mo. These records may provide important documentation to veteran's filing a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs, Rostker said.

"Our goal was to inventory any known surviving hospital record from the Gulf War and create a database with names of all U.S. military and coalition forces and civilians," he said. "To come up with a solution for veterans, we used an electronic database developed earlier by the Army. Then, through a subsequent hands-on effort by team members we were able to locate 7,000 additional Air Force and Navy inpatient hospital records and 3,500 Army records."

To obtain copies of inpatient hospital records from hospitals deployed to the Gulf, Rostker said the veteran should call the special assistant's office at 1-800-497-6261 to request a database search. If the records are among those located, the staff will complete a request form and forward it to the veteran for signature and mailing to the record center.

Rostker said feedback from veterans � contact at outreach meetings, phone calls, e-mails and letters � remains essential to the team's ability to produce narratives and information papers, as well as identify solutions to problems veterans face, like missing medical records.

"The men and women who were there on the scene are the best sources of information for our investigations," he said, "so when the number of inquiries we received through the hotline declined, we began initiating contacts. We continued to maintain an open door policy with the media, veterans groups, Congressional staff members and the newly established Presidential Special Oversight Board. Beginning in March, we expanded our outreach efforts to include the "total force" � Gulf War veterans, those on active duty, serving in the National Guard and Reserve , retired and separated service members, DoD civilians, family members and concerned citizens at military installations."

The revised itinerary includes a two-day information exchange where subject-matter experts present briefings to troops, leadership at all levels, Gulf War veterans, medical staff, family members, community groups, community service organizations and installation staff. Conference-style displays are placed at high-traffic areas and special evening sessions are held at the installation leadership's request. Rostker said that last year he and his team were able to personally meet with more than 6,000 members of the total force .

Not all contact can be personal and Rostker is quick to point out the wide variety of communications tools his office uses to reach as many people as possible. He says that GulfLINK, the office's Internet homepage, and GulfNEWS, the bi-monthly newsletter, continue to grow.

"Our average number of �homepage hits� remain at more than 60,000 each week and in May, the site was selected as one of the �Best Feds on the Web.� The GulfNEWS circulation � more than 7,000 last year and now close to 20,000 � has nearly tripled in the last year."

Rostker says that as he leads the team into its third year of operation, he will increase the focus on lessons learned.

"Our focus will not be how we fight in the near term, but on the consequences of today's actions on the health of our service members in the long term," he said. "We intend to look beyond purely medical or battlefield hazard protections. This must be addressed within the overall operational intelligence-gathering contexts."

Rostker admits that this is a revolutionary change in how commanders view risk to accomplish their assigned missions. He says that won't change the basic reality that armed conflict is inherently dangerous. That is one fact, he says, remains unchanged. And he says that this is the driving force for continued diligence.

"I have not done this alone. My team would not have been able to even get underway without the help of veterans around the country and around the world. They were eager to help us with valuable information and often very personal stories. The men and women who served in the Gulf have my greatest respect. They bring to our effort the most compelling reason to pursue our mission. They want and deserve the truth."