After more than two years that produced little other than exasperation , A White House panel finally is saying out loud what many Americans long have been thinking: The Pentagon has bungled its investigation of Gulf War Syndrome.
Citing the damage the Defense Department's foot-dragging and stonewalling have done to the government's credibility, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses recently voted to include in its final report the recommendation that oversight of research into the mysterious ailments endured by thousands of veterans should be turned over to an independent organization, such as the National Research Council.
It's about time. As is the committee's other recommendation, that Congress establish a permanent program of benefits and health care for the men and women who went to war six years ago and still suffer today.
No one knows what causes the fatigue, headache, joint pain and rashes that plague the veterans. It may be chemical or biological agents, it may be fumes from burning oil wells, it may be, as some Israeli researchers believe, a genetically based reaction to a drug American soldiers were given to protect them from nerve-gas attacks.
That the illness remains a medical conundrum is unfortunate yet understandable. Modern war isn't just hell, it's a high-tech hell in which the best and worst science has to offer combine in unimaginably hideous ways.
Even more unfortunate and utterly perplexing is the Pentagon's reluctance to admit that soldiers are really sick. In a dreadful replay of the denial game it played with Vietnam vets' exposure to Agent Orange, Defense persists in trying to discredit reports of exposures to chemical and biological weapons in the gulf. As the first few reports grew to hundreds, then thousands, the top brass stood firm: It's stress, it's all in your head. Here's your medal, here's your parade, now go away.
The presidential committee began meeting in May 1995, and its patience has been wearing thin for some time, but it resisted publicly criticizing the Pentagon, hoping compassion would overcome expediency. It never did. The final straw came at the committee's Sept. 5 meeting, when thge military refused to accept as certain eyewitness, first-person accounts of chemical exposure incidents, of blister wounds, of subsequent illness.
Already, several members of Congress are planning to submit legislation in line with the committee's recommendation, funding independent research and relaxing the requirement that free treatment of a Gulf War veteran be directly linked to exposure to a chemical or environmental hazard. Such legislation belongs on the fast track -- the veterans have waited long enough.