DURING THE Persian Gulf War six years ago, 148 Americans were killed in combat -- an amazingly low number given the scope of the war prosecuted by 697,000 U.S. troops. Yet after the war, thousands of Gulf War veterans fell ill, with unexplained symptoms ranging from memory loss to debilitating fatigue to joint pain and skin rashes. Many veterans believed their service in the Persian Gulf had caused these illnesses. Many also complained that the Defense Department did not take their suffering or their suspicions seriously enough.
A balanced and sober report from the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses has now shed some light on both aspects of the veterans' complaints. The committee, which presented its final report yesterday, concluded that many veterans are indeed suffering from illnesses "likely to be connected to their service in the Gulf." But the committee did not find evidence of a single syndrome, nor of any single cause. It suggested that stress will likely turn out to be a major contributing factor.
For the most part, the committee endorsed the government's handling of gulf war veterans and their illnesses. The continuing research program is mostly sound, and veterans are receiving appropriate treatment, it said. But it also found that the Defense Department at times has been "patronizing and dismissive of veterans' concerns."
The most serious example of such official misbehavior involves the government's repeated denials that any U.S. troops could have been exposed to chemical weapons, denials that were retracted only last summer after relentless prodding by the committee, congressional critics and veterans themselves. Now the Pentagon has admitted that thousands of troops likely were exposed to low levels of nerve gas or other chemical weapons.
"Regrettably, DOD [the Department of Defense] did not act in good faith in this regard," the presidential committee concludes. It was not just an honest mistake: Defense Department investigators "had knowledge of documents" suggesting chemical-weapons exposure long before the Pentagon's public admissions, and official analyses "have lacked vigor, fallen short on investigative grounds and stretched credibility."
The Pentagon officials' arrogance in this matter was insulting not only to veterans. Research on possible effects of low-level exposure to chemical weapons that could have started years ago is only now getting underway. And if -- as many credible experts predict -- the chemical-weapons exposure turns out not to be the cause of gulf war illnesses, many veterans now will be reluctant to believe even legitimate evidence to that effect.
President Clinton has asked committee chair Dr. Joyce Lashof and her colleagues to continue serving in order to oversee Pentagon activities. They bring a welcome credibility to the process. Even with the committee's continued presence, however, the government has a long way to go to recover its credibility in this matter.
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