Mistrust of Pentagon on Illness In Gulf Grows, Report Concludes

By Bill McAllister
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 24, 1997; Page A02
The Washington Post

The Pentagon is failing in a multimillion-dollar effort to salvage its credibility among ailing Persian Gulf War veterans for its investigations into the possible sources of their illnesses, according to the draft of a final report by a White House advisory committee.

The report, scheduled to be presented to President Clinton next month, concludes, "Public mistrust about the government's handling of Gulf War veterans' illnesses not only has endured, but has expanded" in the 10 months since the Defense Department, at the panel's urging, agreed to intensify its research efforts.

The 35-page draft by the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses is highly critical of the Pentagon's continuing investigations of whether U.S. troops were exposed to chemical warfare agents during the 1991 conflict. It blames the office of the Pentagon's special assistant for Gulf War illnesses for failing to examine reported incidents thoroughly and suggests the Defense Department may be institutionally incapable of acknowledging that chemical exposures could have occurred.

Some of the Pentagon's investigations have been "less than superficial," the draft report said. Even when evidence strongly points to chemical exposures, the Defense Department's evaluation "succumbs to an institutional culture and pervasive inclination to reimpose" the department's position that no exposure occurred, the report said.

The report's language is much more critical than comments by members of the committee during their final public meeting in Alexandria earlier this month. Members of the panel then said their report would criticize the Pentagon's role, but they also said they believed the government was doing a much better job of addressing why thousands of Gulf War veterans have reported ailments that doctors have been unable to diagnose.

Gary L. Caruso, a spokesman for the committee, said yesterday that the report remains "in the review process" and declined to discuss any of the panel's conclusions until it is presented to Clinton Oct. 31.

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, expressed disappointment at the report. "We feel the Defense Department has made some real significant progress," he said, adding that military officials "have not backed away from any event or issue."

He said the department would oppose any efforts by the committee to remove the Pentagon from investigations into post-war illnesses. "After all, we're responsible for what happened in Gulf -- the good and bad," he said.

Matthew Puglisi, director for Gulf War programs for the American Legion, expressed concern over the committee's fight with the Pentagon. "That is an inside-the-Beltway spitball fight," he said.

"What's missing is the concern of Gulf War Veterans. . . . their big issue is medical treatment and compensation for their illnesses," he said. On both counts, Puglisi said the Department of Veterans Affairs is failing to provide service "in anything like a timely manner."

The committee report did offer praise for the Department of Veterans Affairs' efforts to care for ailing veterans. The panel's final report will call for a permanent statutory program to care for the illnesses they suffer and recommend the White House name an agency other than the Pentagon to supervise the continuing studies into what made the veterans ill.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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