by Steven Rosenfeld
September 30, 2003
First Published in TomPaine.com
The Army and Air Force failed to obey Congress' orders to create baseline medical records for soldiers sent to overseas war zones, in this case Iraq, Congress' General Accounting Office (GAO) concludes in a just-released report.
"The percentage of Army and Air Force service members missing one or both of their pre- and post-deployment health assessments ranged from 38 to 98 percent of our samples," the GAO, Congress' investigative arm, found. "Moreover, when health assessments were conducted, as many as 45 percent of them were not done within the required time frames."
These statistics confirm what veterans of the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War and members of Congress have been saying for months: the Pentagon has been ignoring a law whose primary intention was avoiding a repeat of the military's mistakes surrounding its handling of veteran illnesses that have become known as Gulf War Syndrome.
After the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91, tens of thousands of veterans became sick with mysterious illnesses. But because the Pentagon did not have baseline medical records for each soldier in that conflict, it was very slow to acknowledge and act on its responsibility to provide health care for these veterans.
So, in 1997, Congress passed a Public Law 105-85 requiring the military to conduct detailed pre- and post-deployment medical records for every soldier sent into a war zone. The GAO says the military "did not comply" with that requirement in the Iraq War. It also found the Department of Defense (DOD) "did not maintain a complete, centralized database of service members' medical assessments and immunizations."
The issue has been simmering in veteran's circles for some time, but with the Pentagon announcing last week a new round of National Guard deployments to Iraq, it raises the question anew: will the Pentagon fully implement the law?
"We've been calling for it. It's time for it to happen," said Steven Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Veterans Center. "We've had the hearings on the hill. We've done the Kabuki dance. [Undersecretary of Defense for Health Affairs William] Winkenwerder says they don't need to do the screening. The GAO says it's insufficient. Now what?"
Robinson said he and other veterans advocates will be speaking to members of the House Armed Services Committee -- which requested the GAO report -- and Veterans Affairs Committee this week to see what the next steps may be.
Veterans' advocates became aware last fall and winter that troops being sent to Iraq were not being examined as required. Instead, the military gave soldiers a short questionnaire to fill out. After congressional hearings and public criticism from veterans last winter, the Pentagon said it would conduct post-deployment exams and expand its questionnaire.
The GAO report was based on investigations at five military bases: Fort Campbell; Fort Drum; Hurlburt Field and Travis Air Force Base. It recommended that the Secretary of Defense and undersecretary responsible for military health "establish an effective quality assurance program that will help ensure that the military services comply with the force health protection and surveillance requirements for all service members."
In a Sept. 11 letter responding to the GAO report, Assistant Secretary of Defense William Winkenwerder said his office "has already established a quality assurance program for pre- and post-deployment health assessments." Winkenwerder said this program has been in place "since June 2003," which would be several months after Congress held hearings on the law and launched the GAO investigation.
While it remains to be seen what impact the GAO report will have on military health policies, many soldiers now in Iraq and their family members say the Pentagon has all-but ignored the requirement for creating the baseline medical records.
"My husband [an Army Reservist]'s physical was waived before he left," wrote one member of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), an activist group of families with relatives in the military in Iraq. Those contacted requested their names not be used.
"Myself and my wife were given the anthrax and small pox vaccines and were not given a choice in the matter," wrote a soldier. "No screening was done before these vaccines were given to see if there might be complications from a genetic or health standpoint. No blood work was done on us besides a few general questions from a colonel."
"My son has returned home and as far as I know no one has made any mention of medical testing," wrote another member of MFSO. "They arrived back the first week in August... [They] gave him a questionnaire to look over. There are three sections, but he said [questions] in the last section, more current symptoms didn't seem relative for now."
These anecdotes corroborate the GAO's findings: that the pre- and post-deployment medical exams were largely an after-thought, not a policy priority.
Among the soldiers contacted, several said they were aware there could be health consequences of their military services. What they and their family members most frequently cited was exposure to byproducts of depleted uranium (DU) munitions. DU is a slightly radioactive metal that's denser than lead and burns at very high temperatures. It is used in bullets and artillery pieces. Upon impact, it burns and vaporizes. Particles from the smoke are very tiny and can be breathed in and become embedded in lung tissue.
"My daughter told me that as they rolled into Baghdad from Kuwait, right after the end of the big bombing, in mid-April, there were Iraqi tanks on the sides of the roads, that still had the dead Iraqi soldiers in them," wrote another MFSO member. "She asked why the tanks were not cleared off or the bodies taken out, and she was told that no one wanted the duty because the tanks had been hit with DU shells.
"She said they all assumed the dust in the road was full of DU dust, and she said she felt she would now be at an increased risk of cancer, as did all of her unit. She was manning the 50-caliber on top of the truck, and said she breathed in the dust for many miles."
Only one e-mail out of more than one dozen received from MFSO families said their spouse or relative had received the pre- and post-deployment exams and shots.
In conclusion, the GAO said the Pentagon was poised to repeat the mistakes of the first Gulf War, where it did not promptly or adequately address the illnesses among veterans that became known as Gulf War Syndrome.
"Failure to complete post-deployment health assessments may risk a delay in obtaining appropriate medical follow-up attention for a health problem or concern that may have arisen during or following the deployment," the GAO said. "Similarly, incomplete and inaccurate medical records and deployment databases would likely hinder DOD's ability to investigate the causes of any future health problems that may arise coincident with deployments."
Steven Rosenfeld is a commentary editor and audio producer for TomPaine.com, where this article first appeared (www.tompaine.com)