Gulf veterans' concerns
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 16, 2001
Military officials have announced that veterans who served in the Persian Gulf region are almost twice as likely as other soldiers to develop the fatal neurological disorder known as Lou Gehrig's disease. As a result, the Veterans' Administration will begin providing additional benefits and compensation to Persian Gulf War veterans who developed the disease and to the survivors of those who died from it.
The acknowledgement and compensation come not a moment too soon. They also should set a standard for responding to other reports of illnesses related to service during the Persian Gulf War. Thousands of gulf veterans have spent the last decade fighting for recognition that their unexplained illnesses were more than simple malingering.
The findings on Lou Gehrig's disease are the first to officially link service in the gulf to a specific disease, known to scientists as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. But 1999 research showed decreased chemical levels in the parts of sick veterans' brains that control memory, emotion, reflexes and movement.
Because ALS usually is fatal within five years, Pentagon and veterans' officials opted not to wait for more studies. That rapid response is an encouraging departure for those bureaucracies.
Half of the gulf veterans diagnosed with the disease have died. Those servicemen and women might have lived their last days more comfortably with the increased benefits that accrue to veterans with recognized "service-related" illnesses.
The new findings give heightened credence to what Gulf War veterans and their advocates have said all along about links between the service and a range of related illnesses. Earlier Pentagon studies focusing on neurological effects of the gulf conflict seemed to implicate a drug given to soldiers in the belief that it would protect them from nerve gas.
Disputes still rage over the nature and extent of illnesses caused by Agent Orange, the pesticide deployed in Vietnam that sickened veterans of that rwar. The military may be learning the value of openness.
For the sake of our veterans, the response to the ALS findings should be the first in a series of open, forthright efforts to address the broader risks of combat.
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