The Pentagon's top doctor urged Congress yesterday to mandate that the Defense Department offer free medical care to military reservists who have become ill since being sent to the Persian Gulf.
"The people who fall through the cracks are the reservists," Stephen Joseph, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told the military personnel subcommittee of the House National Security Committee. Active duty personnel have access to military doctors and retirees have access to veterans hospitals for service-related ailments, he noted. But health care for reservists is the area "where we have done the least well," Joseph said, noting reservists are entitled to free health care only when they are called to active duty. Many of the thousands of veterans who have said they came home ill after the war with Iraq were reservists and National Guard members and their condition has generated considerable pressure on Congress for government action.
Joseph's recommendation came in response to a question from Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), but it reflected concerns a number of lawmakers voiced yesterday about constituent complaints. Taylor said it was the government's obligation to care for sick veterans, and Joseph agreed.
He offered no estimate of how much health care for reservists would cost and said his answer "may not endear me to the rest of the [Defense] department." Nonetheless, Joseph said it was "my view of the obligation that we owe those people."
As he has done before, the Pentagon physician sought to minimize the extent of the illnesses. "I am convinced there is no unique, single or overriding illness," he told the subcommittee.
The doctor predicted scientists ultimately will discover the ailing veterans can be divided into two "large groups," one of individuals who would have become ill regardless of where they served and another formed by veterans who have ailments that can be directly linked to service in the gulf.
A third, smaller group will consist of veterans whose illnesses cannot be tied to Gulf War service, he said. This is the group that researchers need to study, he said.
Earlier, Elaine Larsen, a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, expressed doubt scientists will learn what has befallen the veterans. "We may find it's `God's wrath' for this century," she told the panel, noting that for 200 years the plague that ravaged medieval Europe was attributed to "God's wrath." It took scientists that long to discover that fleas borne by rats were responsible for the plague, Larsen said.
Larsen, dean of the Georgetown University School of Nursing, also noted the conditions many Gulf War veterans were exhibiting resembled the post-war ailments of veterans following other wars. But when she said the presidential panel had ruled out preventive inoculations as a possible cause of the illnesses, subcommittee Chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), an Army reservist who served in the conflict, was upset.
"I challenge you on that," said Buyer, who had earlier expressed concern over the "cocktail mix" of inoculations given many who went to the gulf.
Later, given the choice of spending $1 million more on research or care for the ailing veterans, Larsen said, "I'd put it toward care of the veterans."
Bernard Rostker, an assistant Navy secretary overseeing the Pentagon's response to Persian Gulf illnesses, conceded there may have been more than 20,000 troops within a 50-kilometer radius of Khamisiyah, a remote desert site where Iraqi chemical weapons were destroyed by U.S. troops shortly after the war.
But Joseph said checks of the medical records of troops known to have been that close to the destruction have failed to show any increase in ailments over other troops deployed to the gulf region.
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