Special Oversight Board holds open meeting


WASHINGTON, January 6, 1999 - An independent panel recently held it's first public hearings here to determine how well the Defense Department is responding to the concerns of Gulf War veterans.

The Presidential Special Oversight Board for the Department of Defense Investigations of Gulf War Chemical and Biological Incidents is a seven member panel tasked with providing guidance to the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, and overseeing the DoD's investigations into those illnesses. The open hearings helped the board's members finalize their strategy for overseeing the DoD's investigations.

The board's chairman, former Senator Warren Rudman, started the sessions by making it clear that they would not be making scientific judgements. Their job, he said, was to make sure our government is doing everything it can for Gulf War veterans. He said their primary focus would be "the Defense Department's conduct of ongoing investigations and efforts in implementation of the Presidential Advisory Committee recommendations." The public hearings allowed him and the other board members to hear from Defense Department officials, veterans support groups and the Gulf War veterans themselves.

In fact, the Special Oversight Board opened its hearings with testimony from a number of interested Gulf War veterans from both active and reserve components. They voiced concerns about depleted uranium exposure, mycoplasma incognitus and several other suspected causes of their illnesses. Some questioned if DoD was listening to all the input it got from outside medical experts. Some told their personal stories of the difficulties they encountered getting medical care and compensation. And they offered a wide range of suggestions to help find the cause of their illnesses, such as making registration in the Department of Veterans Affairs' Persian Gulf Registry mandatory, and offering new medical screenings for veterans. Comments were scheduled for five minutes each, but the panel granted each veteran more time, in one case 20 minutes, in order to hear what they had to say.

Board members had the chance to question many of the people who are driving the effort to help Gulf War vets. That included Bernard Rostker, the special assistant to the deputy secretary of defense for Gulf War illnesses. Rostker discussed his office's efforts to date, including 17 case narratives, four information papers and two environmental exposure reports. He told the board about his group's outreach program, which had answered nearly 5,000 e-mail inquiries and more than 3, 500 telephone inquiries. Outreach includes the Gulflink web site, the GulfNEWS newsletter, and personal visits. Dr. Rostker and his team have held 13 town hall meetings and visited five military bases, with more scheduled. Through those efforts, he said his staff has made contact with almost 150,000 Gulf War veterans.

Rostker said he was anxious for guidance from the board for future actions.

"Having gotten this wrong before when the Department was incorrect in its conclusion that no American troops were exposed to chemical agents, the Department cannot make the final determination of when the stones are too small to bother to turn over," he said.

Senator Rudman assured him that guidance would be forthcoming.

"The debate at some point ought to stop," Senator Rudman said. "Continuing it only delays what the veterans really need most." He said what they need is medical treatment for the wide variety of symptoms they exhibit.

Rear Adm. Michael Cowan, the Joint Chiefs of Staff deputy director for medical readiness, told the board about improvements in force health protection prompted by the lessons learned in investigating the Gulf War. He said those investigations prompted DoD to seek improved equipment for detecting low level biological, chemical and radiation hazards. And because of the difficulty in learning who was exposed to what possible toxins, he said DoD is undergoing a major overhaul of its military personnel tracking system. Cowan said he expects the current system to be completely replaced by the year 2003. A personal information carrier containing a service member's entire medical record is planned to be issued to each member starting next year.

Dr. John Mazzuchi, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Clinical and Program Policy, led a team of Pentagon health affairs officials who testified about what DoD has learned from investigating Gulf War illnesses. They pointed to improved medical surveillance including better pre- and post-deployment medical screening. Also, the services attach a new priority to training all ground forces in how best to protect themselves from the hazards of depleted uranium. The special assistant's office is monitoring that training.

Mazzuchi also told the Oversight Board about future plans to better monitor health trends in DoD's health care beneficiaries. Those plans include a proposed birth defect registry for military families and a deployment health center which would be a DoD/VA joint effort.

As part of their testimony, Pentagon officials also responded to the Senate Special Investigation Unit's report on Gulf War Illnesses. The report recognizes some good programs DoD and the VA have put in place to protect service members and help veterans. However, it says neither organization monitors its programs well enough, and that the two departments need to work together better to ensure effective service to Gulf War vets. Although the DoD believes that intelligence and knowledge of environmental risks was distributed during the Gulf War much better than the report implies, they are working to improve acknowledged shortfalls in preparedness and record keeping.

To complete their input and round out their knowledge, the oversight board heard from veterans' advocates from around the country, and representatives of several major veterans' service organizations including AMVETS, the American Legion, the National Gulf War Resource Center and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. These speakers were able to share the experiences of some of our veterans, and in every case asked the board to insure that federal efforts to help sick veterans would continue.

The Special Oversight Board will meet periodically and plans at least four more public sessions in Washington and elsewhere around the country. It is slated to report back to President Clinton through the Secretary of Defense next August with an interim report, and to render a final report in May 2000.