Gary Null, PhD.
With only 148 Americans officially killed in action and only 467 wounded, the Gulf War seemed to be a shining victory for our military and its leaders. However, this victory has cast a long, lingering shadow. Today we know that nearly 200,000 of our Gulf service men and women are suffering from a debilitating and sometimes deadly syndrome. The suffering our military personnel have endured from Gulf War syndrome is outrageous in and of itself; however, the US government's decades-long denial that the illness even exists has compounded the problem tremendously.
Clearly there is a sadistic irony being played out. We asked brave Americans, whether in the reserve, National Guard, or enlisted troops, to serve in dangerous environments, including Afghanistan and Iraq. We exposed them to biological and chemical agents, experimental vaccines, and environmental toxins -- ranging from the byproducts of air pollutants released from burning oil wells to depleted uranium (DU). After they are brought home, not only do they not receive adequate medical treatment, but the government even denies the existence of their very serious health conditions. As a result, many veterans have filed bankruptcy. Their conditions are not covered under any veteran program. A 2015 US Department of Housing and Urban Development report estimates that nearly 48,000 veterans are currently homeless on any given night, which accounts for approximately 11% of the entire homeless American population.(1) Since it is difficult to determine the actual number of homeless veterans, this figure is likely conservative.
Due to the government's serious neglect, too many veterans are now destitute, homeless, and hungry, having spent tens of thousands of dollars and depleting their life savings in an unsuccessful attempt to relieve their ailments. As former Senators Don Riegle Jr. (D-MI) and Alfonse D'Amato (R-NY) so adeptly observed, "The veterans of the Gulf War have asked us for nothing more than the assistance they have earned. Our refusal to come to their immediate assistance can only lead others to question the integrity of the nation they serve." (2)
We did it to ourselves. Pesticides, PB, nerve gas released by destroying Iraqi facilities--all are cases of friendly fire. That may explain why government and military leaders have been so reluctant to acknowledge what happened, just as they tried to cover up Agent Orange after Vietnam. Certainly, the government should have been facing the problem honestly and doing research from the start to identify diagnostic tests and treatments. (3)
Recently, Binns and his colleagues published a report in the journal Cortex showing compelling new research linking Gulf War syndrome with toxic wartime exposures. (4)
In a 1994 interview I conducted with Paul Sullivan, one of the Gulf War vets profiled in Part 1 of this article, Sullivan shared with me the roadblocks he encountered trying to receive medical attention for his illness:
When you finally get into the VA system, what happens is, they'll lose your records. I went to appointments, ended up waiting four, five additional hours for the doctor simply to find my medical records or the X-rays that they took two or three days earlier. When you do get an exam, the doctor will say, 'I've got five minutes. Tell me your problem.' Then they won't record your symptoms. You hear stories about doctors where their stethoscopes were not even in their ears. You hear stories about soldiers going in there like me, with rashes and respiratory problems and the doctors not even writing it down. Then, even though we're sick, they don't do any tests. Lung function tests, sinus X-rays, chest X-rays -- they weren't doing any of that. Then for the few tests they did run, such as blood tests, in my case, they knew I had an immune deficiency -- nobody ever looked at the results. ...
Unfortunately for many veterans who get out of the service and don't have any health insurance, the VA is our only option. And our only option has crashed and burned under the stress of so many hundreds of thousands of vets coming in and looking for help.(5)
Twenty-two years later, have things changed? Hardly. The appalling lack of quality and timely healthcare through the VA continues to be a major issue plagued by scandal and corruption.
In 2014, officials at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health System were exposed for concealing the fact that as many as 1,600 ailing vets endured months-long wait periods before being seen by doctors. It's estimated that at least 40 US veterans died while waiting for appointments. Many were placed on "secret wait lists" designed to hide the unacceptably long wait periods. (6) Recently retired Phoenix VA physician Dr. Sam Foote commented on the lists saying, "The scheme was deliberately put in place to avoid the VA's own internal rules." (7)
The issue of unreasonably long delays is not limited to the Phoenix VA system. In 2014, amidst growing pressure, Congress enacted the Veterans Choice Program, a $10 billion program to provide vets with access to healthcare services if they have been waiting over 30 days to receive VA medical care, or if they live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility. While Veterans Choice seemed to be a welcome improvement to the previous system, new revelations indicate that this latest program is shamefully ineffective, leaving untold thousands of veterans with little to no access to healthcare for months and even years. Sources indicate that this recent federal program, which doles out payments to cover veterans' health costs at both VA and private facilities, has caused numerous problems, effectively preventing veterans' access to healthcare. (8)
Courageous whistleblowers are calling attention to the downsizing and elimination of important departments, such as neurosurgery and orthopedics, by VA hospital administrators. (9) These actions have forced veterans into the Choice program in order to cut hospital costs while also allowing the hospitals to reap additional federal funding.(10) The result has been fewer health service options for veterans contending with serious illnesses and conditions. Across the country, reports document the continuation of long delays and bureaucratic barriers to receive healthcare.
In a 2015 CNN interview, one insider stated that even at the Phoenix VA, former service people wait more than 6 months to see a doctor. (11) At the Phoenix VA alone, over 8,000 requests for medical care were found to have wait times of more than 90 days. The ongoing travesty is perpetuated by the VA's new and misleading system of measuring wait times, which, according to the insider, "enables an official line that's not consistent with reality," (12) VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson admitted last year that on any given day across the country, there are 500,000 appointments with extended wait times. (13)
Many employees appear hesitant to speak out against the VA's ineffective and corrupt policies from fear of repercussions. According to Carolyn Lerner of the US Office of Special Counsel, a body charged with investigating and prosecuting ethics violations and whistleblower retaliation, an incredible 40% of the cases reviewed concern the VA.(14) Dr. Katherine Mitchell, a VA physician and whistleblower who testified before Congress about the secret wait list scandal and culture of retaliation inside the VA, believes the number of whistleblowers coming forward would rise significantly if employees felt comfortable voicing their opposition. Dr. Mitchell stated,
I believe that percentage will go up significantly. The amount of retaliation that's going on in every facility throughout the nation for decades, if the employees are encouraged that they can come forward honestly, I believe that the VA will be 90 percent of their cases. (15)
New reports show that some VA officials responsible for these catastrophic failures have not only managed to avoid accountability, but are receiving bonuses. Last year the VA paid out $143 million in taxpayer-funded bonuses to VA physicians and administrators. A number of these recipients were embroiled in controversies.(16) Dr. David Houlihan, former chief of staff at the VA Medical Center in Tomah, Wisconsin, who stands accused of prescribing excessive amounts of narcotics to ailing vets, was given a $4,000 performance bonus in 2014.(17) Another VA chief of staff from St. Cloud Minnesota, Dr. Susan Markstrom, was awarded a $3,900 bonus even though an internal investigation report from January 2014 pointed to her role in mismanaging hospital operations and enforcing a culture of intimidation at the facilities, which discouraged employees from speaking out against the hospital management. (18) Also among the recipients of the performance bonus was VA benefits office director Kimberly Graves, who came under fire in a September 2015 VA Inspector General report for allegedly abusing her authority to change job positions, and in the process, collected $129,000 in compensation. (19)