Shortchanging Gulf Vets

The federal government has been using the delayed onset of undiagnosed illnesses in Gulf War veterans to cast doubt on some battlefield cause and effect justifications for benefit claims.

It is reminiscent of the government in the 1990s’ trying to cut costs by initially rejecting Vietnam veterans’ illness claims. Those vets sought compensation for sicknesses alleged to have resulted from exposure years earlier to the toxic battlefield defoliant, Agent Orange. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) officials were slow to recognize any connection between servicemen’s exposure to the herbicide and the subsequent emergence of a broad array of diseases ranging from cancers to respiratory ailments.

It took years of legal wrangling and intensive lobbying to get the VA to certify the linkage between these diseases and Agent Orange exposure on the battlefield, as well as award the appropriate monthly benefits. Even then, the VA resisted paying compensation retroactively until forced to acquiesce under public pressure.

The VA recently was denying more than 80 percent of Gulf War soldiers’ claims for compensation of illnesses attributed to exposure to toxic substances during military service.

There is still some reluctance in the VA to recognize toxins in the battlefield environment as latent catalysts for a wide variety of physical maladies later in life. In denying Gulf War veterans’ claims, VA officials even accused some former servicemen of exaggerating or falsifying their symptoms. Skepticism was raised about soldiers’ delayed disease linkage to lethal pesticides, oil fumes, and other chemical agents encountered in the Iraqi desert as well as other battlefield venues.

Another rationale used by VA medical examiners to deny claims was to treat some of the Gulf War Soldiers belated symptoms (e.g. memory loss, joint pain, skin rashes) as psychological manifestations rather than physical ones. That led to prescribing anti-depressants rather than awarding monthly monetary payments.

Chronic aches and pains that surface years after military deployment are admittedly hard to trace directly to battlefield exposure. Nonetheless, those who risk making the ultimate sacrifice for their country deserve the benefit of the doubt. A moral imperative dictates acceptance of a connection.

Under mounting public pressure, the VA is working to correct its uneven treatment of many Gulf War veterans. Let’s hope delayed outbreaks of environmentally-caused disease are finally given their due and trigger monetary support for vets as a routine matter.

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