Rostker Testifies at Hearing

WASHINGTON, May 3, 2000 (GulfLINK) - Recently, Bernard Rostker, special assistant for Gulf War illnesses, testified before the Presidential Special Oversight Board. The April 4 meeting focused on a proposed follow-on organization to apply lessons learned from the Gulf War to future deployments.

The Board's chairman, former Senator Warren Rudman, opened the session by stating his expectations that Department of Defense had a clear plan for transforming the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War illnesses into an organization concerned with protecting the overall force during future deployments. He also said that there was much work to be done over the following months while OSAGWI scales down to a new, smaller organization.

"The design of that follow on organization is solely the planning responsibility of DoD," Rudman said. "However, there must be provisions for the integration and cooperation of the VA and other organizations."

Rostker addressed the Board to discuss the successor organization for his office. Rostker said that for the past four years his office has been committed to doing everything possible to understand what happened during the Gulf War and to respond to the questions and concerns of veterans. He now feels that mission must be expanded.

"I believe it is imperative that the lessons we have learned are used to address the needs and concerns of our service members associated with deployment," he said.

Rostker pointed out numerous lessons learned from his office's exhaustive investigations, some of which are extremely valuable.

"Perhaps the ultimate lesson learned is that the Department of Defense is not well-structured to deal with the non-traditional issues that arise after every deployment. As importantly, we have learned that we must stay connected to service members and veterans, lest we risk damaging the trust they have in our leadership," Rostker told the Board.

Rostker presented a draft charter for a new organization, which would be called the Office of the Special Assistant for Deployment Matters. He plans for the new organization to build on and expand the work of OSAGWI.

"The new organization will be a strong voice on behalf of service members," Rostker said. "And will ensure that the lessons learned from past operations are applied to future deployment, re-deployment and post-deployment activities."

The new organization would remain committed to helping veterans of the Gulf War and to address their health issues. It would also continue to work with veterans and military service organizations. The Special Assistant for Deployment Matters would operate under the direction of the Secretary of Defense and be responsible for independent review of deployment matters as they pertain to health of the force.

Representatives of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Military Veterans Health Coordinating Board, the VA, Health and Human Services and DoD Health Affairs expressed their support of the proposed follow-on organization. All asserted that they saw no conflict in responsibilities between their own organizations and the planned replacement organization for OSAGWI. Many mentioned the importance of the outreach function the new group would be expected to serve.

Senator Rudman agreed, praising the organization's web site GulfLINK, toll-free telephone numbers and the direct contact OSAGWI maintains with service members and veterans through e-mail and letters. At the same time, Rudman said he thought some other efforts might not be needed in the future.

Several major veterans' service organizations provided their perspective on a follow-on organization. The American Legion, AMVETS, Non-Commissioned Officers Association, Veterans of Foreign Wars, all agreed that a follow-on organization was needed. These organizations praised OSAGWI's accomplishments as an advocate for Gulf War veterans, while voicing some concern that issues specific to Gulf War veterans might get less attention when OSAGWI is discontinued.

The Vietnam Veterans of America and the National Gulf War Resource Center have gone on record expressing distrust of the DoD and disappointment with OSAGWI's progress in helping veterans. These groups' leaders say DoD has not examined all available evidence to find the causes of veterans' illnesses. They proposed that any next organization should be independent of DoD. However, they agreed with the other veteran's organizations that the team replacing OSAGWI must stay in close contact with them as the best way to maintain close contact with veterans.

"The new organization will continue to work with veterans and military service organizations and individual Gulf War veterans," said Rostker. "We remain as ever committed to helping veterans of the Gulf War and to addressing the many health issues that, unfortunately, remain."

The Board also heard from the Canadian Ministry of Defense. A representative testified that Canadian Gulf War veterans who report illnesses are suffering largely the same symptoms as reported by American Gulf War veterans. And like the American research, Canadian surveys show their Gulf War veterans are no more likely to have been hospitalized since the war than military people who did not deploy. He also discussed similar illnesses reported by those deployed to Bosnia.

The Board also heard details of DoD's five-year plan for research into the effects of low level chemical agent exposure from U.S. Army Lt. Col. Michelle Ross, from the Office of the Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological defense. This organization is concerned with defining "low-level exposure" in order to learn just what level of exposure might cause long-term health effects. That kind of data will help determine the amount of chemical warfare agent field detectors should react to.

Additionally, John Feussner, M.D., the head of the VA's Research Working Group, spoke about the scientific research being carried out by DoD, the VA and the Department of Health and Human Services investigating possible causes of Gulf War illnesses. For the past four years, the Research Working Group has coordinated a federal interagency research effort involving more than 145 distinct research projects at a cost of about $150 million. Feussner told the board that a third of those projects have been completed.

The Presidential Special Oversight Board for the Department of Defense Investigations of Gulf War Chemical and Biological Incidents - a seven-member panel tasked since 1998 with overseeing the DoD's investigations into Gulf War illnesses - provides guidance and recommendations to the special assistant for Gulf War illnesses. Over the past two years, the board has held numerous public hearings. At these public hearings, the board members hear from veterans, Defense Department representatives and members of military and veteran's service organizations.

The Presidential Special Oversight Board is scheduled to send its final report to the president in December and plans to meet again in the fall.