Hon. Anthony J. Principi
Secretary of Veterans Affairs


ALS Press Conference
Washington, DC
December 10, 2001


Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you all for coming.

Following the largest epidemiological investigation of its kind—involving studying 2.5 million American veterans—the Department of Veterans Affairs has found preliminary evidence that veterans who served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm are nearly twice as likely as veterans who were not deployed to Southwest Asia to develop amyotrophic (am-ee-o-trow-phic) lateral sclerosis, or ALS—an illness often called Lou Gehrig's disease.

In accomplishing this study, we worked as full partners with the Department of Defense, which provided most of the funding for the project. I want to thank Bill Winkenwerder, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, for partnering with us—and for all of DoD's help and support on this vital issue.

ALS is a neurological disease that destroys the nerve cells that control muscle movement. Neither a cause nor an effective treatment for ALS is known, and it is a fatal illness.

Our study involved nearly 700,000 service members who were deployed to Southwest Asia during Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and 1.8 million service members who were not deployed. We found 40 cases of ALS among deployed veterans—almost twice as many as we would have expected compared to those who were on active duty during that period but did not serve in the Gulf. About half are now deceased.

This, incidentally, is the third study of ALS our department has accomplished. The first two, which were much smaller in scale than the present study, were inconclusive, but we kept searching in response to requests from veterans and veterans service organizations. They believed that there was an association between service in the Gulf and ALS—and preliminary evidence indicates that they were correct.

The finding that Desert Shield and Desert Storm veterans are at greater risk to develop ALS is of great concern to me, and to our department—as I am sure it is to these veterans and their families. In response to the results of this study, I intend to immediately take three actions.

First, I will insure veterans who served in the Gulf during the period from August 2, 1990 through July 31, 1991 and subsequently develop ALS are compensated. In today's battlefield, we need to recognize that non-traumatic illnesses and injuries can be as deadly as a bullet wound. And where we can show scientific evidence of an association between service and illness, we must compensate veterans with that illness.

Therefore, we will compensate Desert Shield and Desert Storm veterans with ALS—and we will do so quickly. We will immediately contact those who were identified by the study and will help them to file new claims or prosecute existing claims—and we will pay benefits retroactively to the date their claims are filed.

We are providing compensation at this time despite the fact that this study has not yet been peer reviewed because of the progressively fatal nature of ALS. Those veterans who have contracted the disease cannot wait for the peer review process to be completed. They need help now-and we will offer it to them.

Second, I intend to fully focus our medical resources and research capabilities on this issue. VA is an internationally recognized leader in medical research, specializing in studies of illnesses, diseases and injuries are related to military service. In recognition for their work, two VA researchers have won Nobel Prizes.

Our department pioneered the understanding of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—a contribution that will serve the entire nation in the aftermath of September 11.

We will now turn our expertise to ALS. We will work with others to pursue a cause, a treatment, and a cure. I am confident that we will make a contribution to this field as we have in so many others—not only veterans but all people—who contract this disease.

And third, we will insure that every veteran with ALS who seeks it will receive the best possible care at VA health care facilities throughout the nation. We will see to it that our patients receive the benefit of any new treatment developed by medical researchers anywhere in the world.

Once again, I thank the Department of Defense for their cooperation in the completion of this study, and for providing the bulk of the funding for the study. I would also like to thank the other federal agencies and researchers who participated.

And I also commend the dedicated and talented VA staff who worked so expeditiously, to complete the study in order to benefit veterans and their families. Their work was in keeping with the great traditions of VA research.

At this time, ladies and gentlemen, I'm honored to introduce Bill Winkenwerder, our partner in this process, to say a few words.