Gulf War Advocates Purged for Telling the Truth?

Gulf War veterans involved in federal efforts to define and treat the mysterious illness plaguing a quarter of a million of their ranks say they are being retaliated against for telling the truth.

Sound familiar?

This spring, members of the Research Advisory Committee for Gulf War Illness (RAC) joined former Veterans Affairs (VA) scientist, Dr. Steven Coughlin, in testifying before congress that the government has manipulated, covered-up and even lied about research pertaining to Gulf War Illness research. The two committee members, veteran Anthony Hardie and scientist Dr. Lea Steele, publicly concurred that the VA had not only faltered in its mission to define the illness, but seems determined to avoid the truth.

From Hardie at the March 13 hearing:

To date, VA has no proven effective treatments, not because such treatments are impossible to find, but because a small cabal of federal bureaucrats and contractors work at every step to delay, defer, and deny, and even so far as to obfuscate and refuse to implement laws, policies, and expert recommendations.

These issues are not just limited to affecting veterans of the 1991 Gulf War. DoD’s "Force Health Protection" and VA’s Office of Public Health (OPH) continue to find "no evidence" of the very real health issues affecting countless thousands of additional veterans caused by their exposure to burn pits, chemical solvents in drinking water, contaminated and questionable anthrax and other vaccinations, inhaled or ingested Depleted Uranium (DU) particulates. These misguided people also continue to minimize and spin the all to real health effects of blast waves, concussions and other brain injuries, combat psychological traumas, and more.

Whew. Guess it’s no surprise that Hardie did not come out of this testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations entirely unscathed. Or so it seems. Just over a week ago, it was reported that the office of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki – whom Hardie accused of being "largely and disappointingly silent and disengaged," and had "never once personally come to a RAC meeting," had altered the RAC’s charter, purging it of half its members, reorienting its mission, and in essence, eliminating any independence it might have had from the mother ship until now.

The response, brought to the press last week, was severe. "VA continues to ignore and whitewash this panel’s many recommendations while Gulf War veterans suffer and die," Hardie told this writer in an interview right after what is being called the panel’s evisceration.

"But if that is not bad enough, VA is now going after the very same medical researchers and veterans who did their jobs telling VA what must be fixed."

“Telling VA what needs to be fixed” was apparently their first mistake, though VA officials (who did not return emails for comment) have denied the changes to the committee’s bylaws are anything more than good housekeeping. Dr. Robert Jesse, the VA’s principal deputy undersecretary of health, claimed the alterations were made "to align it with similar VA charters in accordance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act and the requirements of Public Law 105-368," and to rotate members whose terms have long expired, in a blog post on the VA website last week.

But according to Hardie and the rest of the RAC, which sent a lengthy letter of response of Secretary Shinseki on June 10, the changes were much more jarring than that, and smacked of payback.

"We believe from the timing and scope of these sweeping changes that they are retaliation against the RAC and its members for being outspoken on Gulf War health issues – part of the RAC’s Congressional mandate – and are an attack on Gulf War veterans," the letter reads.

Let’s review some of the key changes to the committee, which is made up of 12 congressionally appointed members – including eight scientist/health researchers and four veterans (three from the Gulf War; Chairman James Binns is a Vietnam Veteran).

First, half of the members will be rotated out, including Binns, who the veterans say is their "principled, fair, just, non-partisan, longstanding champion." No word on which other members will be replaced, and Binns has been asked to stay a year to help with "the transition."

Meanwhile, RAC members say a critical piece of the charter has been removed, specifically, these passages:

“The guiding principle for the work of the Committee shall be the premise that the fundamental goal of Gulf War health-related government research, either basis or applied, is to ultimately improve the health of ill Gulf War Veterans, and that the choice and success of research efforts shall be judged accordingly."

“The Committee shall assess the overall effectiveness of government research to answer central questions on the nature, causes, and treatments for health consequences of military service in the Southwest Asia theater of operations during the 1990-91 Gulf War.”

RAC members say the removal of this language leaves the RAC a mere simulacrum of independence. "Until now, providing an independent, expert assessment of the effectiveness of all federal Gulf War research – judged on a treatment standard – has been the core mission of the RAC." But no more, the letter to Shinseki asserts.

"VA staff have apparently succeeded in getting you, Mr. Secretary, to sign a document ending VA’s mission to improve the health and lives of ill Gulf War veterans."

Apparently, some at the VA are tired of the RAC taking their "mission" so seriously – this June 2012 committee report says it all – because in an excerpt of a letter written to Binns from Shinseki’s chief of staff Jose Riojas after the March congressional testimony, Riojas says the committee should not be a "watchdog for all Gulf War-related work at VA. VA has robust oversight and investigation capability to address alleged wrongdoing." The letter was quoted by reporter Kelly Kennedy in a recent USA Today piece June 14.

Interestingly, Dr. Coughlin, who was a senior epidemiologist with the VA, said he was forced to blow the whistle to congress on the data manipulation because he couldn’t get a fair hearing from his bosses in the Department of Public Health at the VA. So much for oversight. Nevertheless, not only will the RAC’s budget be capped under the new bylines, but it will no longer be able to determine its own staff, according to members. Instead, the VA will staff the committee, perhaps with people from the very departments the RAC has been criticizing all along. Meetings will likely drop to one from three times a year. All combine to "curtail the RAC’s independence, scope and ability to carry out its mission," said the committee members in their letter to Shinseki.

According to Hardie, Riojas "inserted himself" into the June 18 meeting agenda in Washington, where he proceeded to explain that the changes to the bylaws were to rein in the committee (even though the RAC was created by congress in 1998, and as far as members are concerned, it is up to congress to say whether they have overstepped their bounds or not). After that, the Gulf War vets on the panel read statements in protest and walked out.

Although the VA vehemently denies it, the staff is accused of thwarting funds and focus away from research that will find treatments for Gulf War vets suffering from physical ailments much of the scientific community now blames on toxic exposures in theater – likely the pills they were given to counter a chemical weapons attack and the pesticides used in the field. Other theories, like the rampant oil fires, exposure to chemical weapons and depleted uranium, also abound. In fact, a new study reported here, has revealed actual brain damage among sick Gulf War vets.

Critics say the VA, however, is still entertaining the possibility that the illness in psychological, which really, would put the onus on the vet, rather than the government, and cost much less in long-term health care costs than if the sicknesses were deemed physiological and service-connected.

"I regret to say … there seems to have been backward movement with actions that seem intended to ignore the science and minimize the fact that there is a serious medical condition resulting from military service in the 1991 Gulf War," Dr. Steele said before the subcommittee in March. In addition to being a member, Steele has also worked as the RAC’s scientific director.

Coughlin’s testimony at that March hearing was explosive in that not only did he claim that data for recent Iraq and Afghanistan or "New Gen" vets had been manipulated to play down their negative exposure to burn pits in the field, but that data on Gulf War vets and their families had mysteriously gone missing, and that a questionnaire for a major health survey on Gulf War vets had been massaged so as not to elicit the clearest information on the vets’ toxic exposures and links to Gulf War Illness. After he complained and asked for parts of the survey to be rewritten, his supervisors lied outright about the money and time it would take to fix it, Coughlin charged.

He added that these incidents, plus the fact that he had to push so hard for the VA to follow up with psychological care for suicidal vets screened in the survey, caused him to quit. His repeated attempts to go through proper channels had caused backlash from supervisors and threats to his job, he told congress. There is an ongoing congressional investigation and inspector general’s probe into his claims. He was not the first, of course. In a recent column, we profiled Dr. Jim Moss, who in 1993 said he was squeezed out of government-sponsored research after he found a connection between the Pyridostigmine Bromide (PB) pills given to Gulf War soldiers and the insect repellent (DEET) they used in the war. His mistake, too, was testifying publicly about this findings before congress.

Nevertheless, Shinseki’s office said in March that "any retaliation against VA employees is against the law and is not tolerated by the Department."

Tell that to the RAC. Members feel that retaliation is the name of the game for their criticism of the VA. But as they said, if they didn’t speak out, who would? Time will tell if the RAC’s voices will be silenced forever.

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.