Gulf War Illness: The Battle Continues
Author: Martin Enserink
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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."