Remarks By

Dr. Bernard Rostker

Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense

For Gulf War Illnesses

Prepared for

American Legion National Convention

National Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission Meeting

September 4, 1999


Thank you Mr. Chairman for that kind introduction.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today about the work of the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses. As many of you know, we are rapidly approaching our third anniversary. Today, even as our investigations continue searching for the possible causes of Gulf War Illnesses, we are started looking at where our office is headed in the future.

First, and foremost we intend to continue with our mandate to "leave no stone unturned" in the search for the cause or causes of Gulf War veterans' illnesses until we are told to stop. We have, in three years, provided veterans, their families and the public with an abundance of information regarding a number of incidents that occurred during the Gulf War. I believe our office has been able to restore some of the credibility that DoD lost as a result of the initial response to veterans with unexplained illnesses after the war.

Looking back, it is clear that as the crisis over Gulf War illnesses grew, we did not listen to the veterans or their family members, nor did we provide them with the information they needed to alleviate their fears and answer their questions. Today, much has changed in the way the Defense Department relates to those who served in the Gulf.

As we move forward, I am heartened that we are not only continuing our program of investigations and analysis of possible causes of Gulf War illnesses, but also working to provide additional resources to evaluate new medical treatments for our veterans. The simple fact is we may never uncover a single cause to Gulf War Illnesses. However, even at a time when the Department of Veterans Affairs is experiencing funding difficulties, it is absolutely critical we support our veterans by evaluating new and promising treatment modalities.

Today, DOD medical researchers in San Diego and Washington are working with our veterans on several projects focused on treatment.

The first program involves drawing blood samples from the volunteers participating in the program to look for a specific marker - a microorganisms -- in the blood. If found some veterans will begin taking an antibiotic to see if that helps, and others will become the control group. Of course, individual veterans will not now if they are taking the treatment or taking a placebo.

The second program, building off the treatment program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and is examining whether a regimen of exercise can help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with Gulf War illnesses.

These programs are part of a much broader effort by the Administration that has involved a number of offices in the Department of Defense and across the Government. We are all committed to making sure the veterans come first in our efforts to care for those who fought in the Gulf War.

Recently the President's Special Oversight Board that monitors the Office of the Special Assistant completed their "Interim Report." They commented that, "Perhaps most noteworthy is OSAGWI'S sustained effort to provide veterans and the public with as much information as possible through the Internet, a telephone hotline, and town hall meetings. In addition, OSAGWI has increasingly used veterans service and military service organizations to provide information to Gulf War veterans."

When we established the Office of the Special Assistant, one of the first things we did was to expand the toll-free phone line for veterans to call with their questions and concerns. To date our veterans contact managers have talked with more than eleven thousand veterans across the globe. We also established an outreach program that includes our award winning interactive website, GulfLINK, and a free, bi-monthly newsletter, GulfNEWS. We also frequently meet with Veterans Service Organizations and Military Service Organizations to discuss topics of interest to them in an effort to remain responsive to the needs and concerns of those we serve.

Building on our initial set of town hall meetings, some of which were sponsored by the American Legion, last year we began sending teams out across the nation to brief the total force on our efforts. We wanted to get the message of "force protection" out to today's soldiers, both veterans of the Gulf War and those that have come into service since 1991. We wanted to listen to their concerns firsthand, including their new concerns about anthrax. To date, we have met with almost 40,000 service members.

Although this was not and is not a traditional function of the Defense Department, it is showing a clear benefit to us all. First, it's the right thing to do. The service members, veterans and their family members have questions and a need for information. Our office is there to fulfill those needs.

Today, we live in an age where people are inundated with information; where we get our news in sound bites, and anonymous rumors abound. Perhaps that's why our person-to-person approach is working so well. The more we work with our service members and veterans, the more we find out that we are having a real and lasting effect on them and their families.

For our efforts to be meaningful, we have to learn from our experiences. Specifically, we continually work to better account for what happened on the battlefield, and in the future, to better protect our troops on the battlefield from nontraditional risks. To that end, we recently reassigned several of our analysts into the newly established Lesson Learned Directorate. Here are some of the things we have learned and are doing:

We agree with the Special Oversight Board when they said in their interim report that, "identifying lessons learned ranks among OSAGWI's most important work." We also agree that we must develop a "formal integration of the OSAGWI lessons learned team into the existing Military Service and Joint Staff lessons learned infrastructure." This is a major goal as we work towards consideration of the long-term status of OSAGWI or a logical follow-on organization. In this regard, The American Legion was good enough to share with the Special Oversight Board and me the organization's thoughts, and I have taken the liberty of sharing them with the Special Oversight Board. Here is what our National Commander said, "It is our judgement that OSAGWI should evolve into an organization that remains independent of the Joint Chiefs and the services; conducts outreach to current and former service members after deployments; oversees that appropriate changes are made to joint and service doctrine in light of lessons learned from past, current and future deployments." His comments are very timely and will be considered as we move forward and plan for the future. Our goal now and in the future is to support our service members past, current and future and their families. Here I know that we have the full support of the American Legion and you have my commitment to stay focused on their needs.

Thank you for your support and giving me the opportunity to address the National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission Meeting. Please visit our display in the exhibit hall and pick up copies of our annual report. It provides a lot more information about how far we've come this year and where we are going in the future. A team from my office is also available to talk to you and will try to answer any questions you may have concerning any of our activities in support of our veterans.


Thank you again.

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