Gulf War Illness: The Battle Continues

Author: Martin Enserink 

Science magazine

Volume 291, Number 5505, Issue of 2 Feb 2001, pp. 812-817.
Copyright 2001 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.


Side Bar article


Restoring Faith in the Pentagon

If you attend a meeting about Gulf War illness, you can't miss Kirt Love

and Venus Hammack. He's the big white guy and she's the slim African-

American woman with the video camera in the back. Love and Hammack

are always there, recording tape after tape; they even moved to a small

town in Virginia (Hammack from Massachusetts, Love from Texas) to be

closer to Washington, D.C., the epicenter of Gulf War illness policy.

They've amassed a wealth of information on the war, and Love maintains

a Web site that looks exactly like one operated by the Pentagon, "just to

annoy the hell out of them." Military maps of the Iraqi desert adorn the

walls of his office.

Like many other veterans, Love and Hammack--both ill after serving in the

Gulf--have turned their anger into activism. And they're sure of one thing:

The Department of Defense has no intention of letting the truth about Gulf

War illness come out. Lots of information about potential exposures has

remained secret, they contend, and instead of getting to the bottom of it,

the Pentagon is pushing the theory that stress causes Gulf War illness.

"It's a don't-look, don't-find policy," says Hammack.

They're not the only ones. Questions about the Pentagon's ability to

objectively study Gulf War illness, especially among veterans, have dogged

the department for years and spawned numerous conspiracy theories.

Removing those doubts has proven difficult. Just 6 weeks ago, an independent

panel established in part to restore trust published its final report, concluding

that the Pentagon had worked "diligently ... to leave no stone unturned." But

that friendly pat on the back was spoiled by nasty disputes among panel

members and staff, some of whom charge that its review was flawed and

anything but independent.

President Clinton established the Presidential Special Oversight Board (PSOB)

in 1998 to review the Pentagon's Gulf War illness efforts. In particular, the

seven-member board kept watch over the Office of the Special Assistant for

Gulf War Illnesses (OSAGWI), which coordinates all Gulf War illness efforts

at the Pentagon. One of OSAGWI's main tasks is to study possible

exposures during the Gulf War, especially to chemical and biological

warfare agents. It has, for instance, investigated many alleged incidents in

which nerve gas might be involved.

From the outset, Gulf War vets criticized the PSOB, chaired by former

Senator Warren Rudman (R-NH), for its close ties to the Pentagon. (Four

of its seven members were retired military brass.) They also said the board

was light on scientific expertise and questioned whether it would have the

independence needed to take OSAGWI to task. Now, they claim that a

resignation letter made public by the Gulf War Veterans Resource Center

shows they were right. In the letter, dated 20 September 2000 and directed

to panel chair Rudman, PSOB staff analyst William Taylor said he could

no longer work for the PSOB because it was not taking its oversight job

seriously. Rudman had proposed to give OSAGWI an "A for effort" in the

final report, Taylor wrote, even though "OSAGWI's efforts fall short in nearly

every conceivable way." But attempts to criticize OSAGWI were "squashed"

by panel members, he wrote. (Roger Kaplan, PSOB's former deputy executive

director, says that Taylor later offered his apologies to Rudman; in a letter

that Kaplan made available, Taylor says he was "angry" at the time and offers

to retract his original letter. Taylor, who now works at the Department of Health

and Human Services, declined to comment.)

More conflicts surfaced when the report came out in December. In a strongly

worded appendix, panel member Vinh Cam, an immunologist and consultant

from Greenwich, Connecticut, charged that she had been left out of the loop

while the report was written. She claims that a chapter about the importance

of stress in Gulf War illness is "a blatant misrepresentation" of the board's

discussions and was added at the last moment. She also attacked the cozy

relationship between the panel and the office it was supposed to oversee. "At

times, the PSOB acted more like an extension of OSAGWI," Cam wrote.

Her remarks were countered by a scalding rebuttal written by Rudman. Cam

had been "aloof and uncommunicative" and "has no one to blame but herself

for her isolation," he wrote in a second appendix to the report. He also criticized

her expense accounts: "Dr. Cam accounted for 47.73% of all board member

billings!," Rudman stated, before thanking all other members, who "provided far

more extensive contributions at no or little cost to the taxpayer." Cam says

there was nothing irregular about her expense reports.

The PSOB closed down 2 weeks ago. For veterans like Love and Hammack,

the imbroglio feeds their suspicions that the PSOB's independent review was

a whitewash. "All they had to do was approve of everything OSAGWI did," says

Love. Most others involved in Gulf War illness--including OSAGWI chief of staff

Michael Kilpatrick--declined to comment on the affair. But researchers privately

acknowledge that the furor has been counterproductive, to say the least. "This

just adds to the anxiety," says one insider. "It's sad, the way it has panned out."