Special Assistant appointed by DoD

WASHINGTON, August, 8, 2000 (GulfLINK) - A significant lesson learned from the Gulf War is that the Department of Defense is not well structured to deal with the non-traditional issues that arise after every deployment.

As a result of these lessons learned, the Department of Defense has established a new position to advise the Secretary of Defense on the force health aspects of deployments. Bernard Rostker, formerly the special assistant for Gulf War illnesses, has been appointed Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Gulf War Illnesses, Medical Readiness and Military Deployments. Rostker will address health-related matters for past the Gulf War, on-going and future deployments. He will build on and expand the work originally started by the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses and continue to work with Veterans and Military Service Organizations and individual veterans.

"We need to remain vigilant, to make sure the mistakes DoD made in the Gulf War aren't repeated," said Rostker.

"For the past four years, OSAGWI 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. As we move forward, I believe it is imperative we remain as committed as ever to helping veterans of the Gulf War and addressing the many health issues that remain," he said.

"In the last few months, I've shared my view with many that there is a need to continue the outreach and deployment health related functions that OSAGWI currently performs. I have talked with leaders of major veterans and military service organizations and asked for their thoughts as I considered future needs. I also spoke with the Presidential Special Oversight Board and leadership within the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, " added Rostker. "They all supported the establishment of a new organization to focus on what happens before and during deployments as they pertain to the health of our troops."

As the new special assistant, Rostker will be accountable to the Secretary of Defense, Congress, the Executive branch, veterans and the American public on these issues.

The DoD learned a great deal from the Gulf War that is applicable to future troop movements. Among those lessons was the importance of maintaining current medical records on all servicemembers, properly training troops in safety precautions when using depleted uranium and keeping servicemembers informed about the vaccines they are administered. Rostker will work within the department to ensure these lessons are incorporated into force health programs.

Part of OSAGWI's success was based on its ability to communicate with servicemembers, veterans and the general public by providing a forum for Gulf veterans and listening to them. Rostker says he will continue the OSAGWI tradition of listening to servicemembers and veterans and discussing their deployment concerns through the interactive Web site (http://www.gulflink.health.mil ) and the toll free telephone number, (800) 497-6261.

"We must continue to work to preserve the trust of servicemembers, veterans and the public, especially concerning future military deployments," Rostker says. "We want to always be ready to respond to individuals who have concerns about potential force health related issues."

Rostker has also made it clear that the change in OSAGWI does not mean the end of DoD's concern for the veterans of the Gulf War, some of whom still suffer undiagnosed illnesses.

"It is important for our Gulf War veterans to know that we will continue to work for them," Rostker says. "One of the most important things we've learned is that we must remain committed to those who serve their country. Since November 1996, I have focused on meeting that commitment for Gulf War veterans. As we transition to a new organization we will complete current investigations."

Personal answers and assistance for Gulf War veterans will continue via the interactive email and toll-free phone number. Veterans deploying after the Gulf War will also be able to call for information or to discuss their deployment concerns.

OSAGWI was established November 12, 1996, by Dr. John White, the Deputy Secretary of Defense and given broad authority to coordinate all aspects of DoD's Gulf War investigations. White tasked the new special assistant to focus on the war's operational aspects and future force protection issues. He emphasized the need for a communications program that would reach out to the veterans and learn from them what went on during the Gulf War.

OSAGWI has talked to thousands of veterans and reviewed tens of thousands of documents trying to understand and explain Gulf War illnesses.

The office published 18 case narratives-four as final reports, nine information papers, and three environmental exposure reports-one of which has also been published as a final report. OSAGWI also commissioned the RAND Corporation, a federally funded research and development center, to review medical and scientific literature and explore the probability of specific exposures causing subsequent symptoms. RAND has published reviews on oil well fires, depleted uranium, pyridostigmine bromide, stress, and military use of investigational drugs during the war. This past year, OSAGWI produced three closeout reports in which available evidence indicates that continued investigation is not likely to improve understanding of any unexplained illnesses.

During the outreach to servicemembers, veterans and their families, OSAGWI visited 20 military installations and conducted a total of 30 town hall meetings throughout the country. The office answered approximately 15,000 Hotline calls, fielded 8,000 emails, and sent notification letters to 162,500 Gulf War veterans. The staff located nearly 27,000 in-patient hospital records and continues to work with Gulf War veterans to help them obtain copies of their hospitalization records from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo.

"We remain as committed as ever to helping veterans of the Gulf War and to addressing the many health issues that, unfortunately, remain," said Rostker. "Additionally, we have a responsibility and obligation to protect the health and welfare of the men and women we continue to put in harm's way since the Gulf War."

"We are reminded daily of the challenges faced by our armed forces deployed around the globe protecting our national interests. It is a commitment we must not take lightly, and it is not one we can pass on to another agency," said Rostker. "I made a commitment nearly four years ago to our Gulf War veterans and believe we must continue that legacy of dedication to all veterans-past, present, and future."