Military: Veterans urge special study of issue. President extends life of panel and asks it to exercise oversight of Pentagon's efforts.
By ART PINE, PAUL RICHTER, Times Staff Writers
WASHINGTON--President Clinton on Tuesday rejected demands by veterans for an outside agency to take over the Defense Department's investigation of Persian Gulf War illnesses, instead extending the life of a presidential advisory panel so it can keep watch over the Pentagon's efforts.
Clinton also endorsed a proposal by Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown to allow Gulf War veterans more than two years to document their ailments and still qualify for access to VA disability benefits. Some veterans of the war have said that their symptoms did not show up until too late.
The compromise gestures came after the presidential advisory commission, which is made up of a dozen physicians and scientists, issued a report concluding that nerve gas exposure during the 1991 war was unlikely to have caused any of the ailments suffered by veterans.
Although the panel criticized the Pentagon for failing to take the issue seriously until recently, the report said that the Defense Department and the VA have provided good medical care to the veterans and now appear to be investigating the problem in earnest.
Neither the panel's findings nor Clinton's decision to ask the group to exercise "oversight" of the Pentagon's efforts was a surprise. The committee, which studied the issue for 19 months, had signaled its conclusions in a draft report two months ago.
Clinton promised a veterans group Tuesday that, despite some shaky starts, "we will not stop until we have done all we can to care for our Gulf War veterans, to find out why they are sick and to help to make them healthy" again. "We are on the right track," he asserted.
Nevertheless, Persian Gulf veterans' organizations were critical of the report, dismissing it as incomplete and calling for another independent study of the issue, possibly by a special prosecutor equipped with subpoena powers.
"We are very disappointed," said Chris Kornkven, spokesman for the National Gulf War Resource Center, a coalition of 24 veterans groups. He said that the panel had "done a great disservice to . . . veterans of the Gulf War . . . who claim they are sick."
Separately, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) disclosed the results of a survey of about 2,000 Persian Gulf veterans in Iowa suggesting that they were as much as three times more likely to suffer one or more symptoms than service members who were not in the 1991 war.
However, outside analysts said that the study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was based on a telephone survey of veterans, without any opportunity for medical officials to confirm their illnesses.
The survey is to be included in a series of studies made public today by the Journal of the American Medical Assn. Officials said that the others, based on a mail survey of 240 naval reservists, would seek to link Gulf War illness to organophosphates exposure.
The advisory committee report did little to resolve the mystery surrounding Gulf War illness. In all, 60,000 of the 697,000 U.S. troops who served in the Gulf War have complained of symptoms ranging from chronic fatigue to muscle aches and memory loss.
The panel's findings were in line with those of four previous studies of the Gulf War illnesses, by the Pentagon, the veterans' department, the CDC and the prestigious U.S. Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.
As has been the case in the other studies, Tuesday's report concluded that, despite all the research, there is no current evidence that would link the symptoms to the contaminants encountered by soldiers during the U.S. intervention there.
It also discounted as unlikely claims by veterans who say that their ailments were caused by exposure to a variety of chemical contaminants, from oil well fires in Kuwait to pyridostigmine bromide pills, which were given to U.S. soldiers to protect them against chemical weapons.
However, the report urged the government to step up efforts to find out how many U.S. soldiers may have been exposed to nerve agents near Khamisiyah, where troops destroyed an Iraqi weapons bunker just after the war ended. The Pentagon is now investigating.
As it has throughout its 19-month investigation, the committee criticized the Pentagon's initial handling of the Gulf War issue--particularly its refusal to investigate fully reports that U.S. troops may have been exposed to nerve agents at Khamisiyah.
The 174-page report said that the panel had found "substantial evidence" of low-level exposure to chemical warfare agents at several sites in Iraq and Kuwait and said that the Pentagon's efforts to explain them so far had been "superficial" and "unlikely to provide credible answers."
Nevertheless, Joyce C. Lashof, chairwoman of the panel, said that she had found "no evidence of a cover-up," as many Gulf War veterans have alleged.
Copyright Los Angeles Times