Gulf War veterans suffering from a wide range of debilitating illnesses have struggled for years to convince the government to examine their possible exposure to chemical agents during the conflict. After the war ended, some of the 80,000 veterans were concerned that toxic chemicals from Iraqi weapons may have caused their ailments. Officials at the Defense Department granted little credence to these concerns. Instead, the Pentagon denied that American troops were ever exposed to chemical agents and insisted that it was unlikely that most of the reported illnesses were causally related to wartime service.
Now, however, a series of investigations, conducted for a special White House panel report on Gulf War illnesses, have obtained evidence that indicates that as many as 20,000 U.S. troops may have been exposed to chemical agents in 1991 after American engineers blew up an Iraqi weapons depot. Although the finding doesn’t prove that chemical agents are responsible for the illnesses, it has stripped the Pentagon of its credibility in this matter. The Defense Department can no longer be left on its own to carry out a thorough and objective investigation.
In response to the White House panel’s charge that the Defense Department’s investigative efforts have been superficial and deceptive, the Pentagon announced a sweeping expansion of its inquiry. The agency has already increased its investigative team from 10 to 112 members. But some members of the panel, including a number of prominent doctors and scientists, have suggested that control of the inquiry be taken away from the Defense Department. While the full panel fell short of unanimously recommending an independent investigation, all of the members agreed that at the very least an oversight committee should be created to monitor the Pentagon’s inquiry.
Although the Pentagon should be encouraged to devote more resources to the investigation, it is too late for the agency to make amends. Even though it remains in question whether chemical weapons are to blame for the illnesses, few veterans will believe the investigation results if the Defense Department maintains its command.
In fact, government studies published last week indicate that at least through late 1993, Gulf War veterans were not dying or falling seriously ill at unusually high rates. But scientists stressed that the results were preliminary. Doctors insist the appropriate studies have not been conducted because the government long denied the possibility of exposure to chemical weapons. Consequently, the panel recommended that the government continue considering the possibility that some soldiers were made ill by exposure to chemical weapons. We agree. The government should finally grant veterans’ concerns the legitimate and thoughtful consideration the Pentagon has denied them since the war’s end.
Defense Department officials have demonstrated that they cannot be relied upon to conduct investigations that may implicate their agency. An independent commission should be created with subpoena power and access to classified materials. Compensation for service and compassion dictate no less. The men and women who risked their lives serving our country have a right to know what has made them so sick.