Three members of a Veterans Affairs Department advisory committee on Persian Gulf War illnesses walked out of a meeting in Washington, D.C., on Monday to protest planned changes to the board’s makeup — alterations they say are designed to neuter the often outspoken panel.
During a meeting of the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses, VA interim chief of staff Jose Riojas announced changes to the panel’s charter, including replacing half the board members and cutting its budget.
According to panel member Anthony Hardie, Riojas “made clear that the [committee] had overstepped its charter” and needed to be steered in a different direction.
In a written response to questions from Military Times, Dr. Robert Jesse, VA principal deputy undersecretary for health, said the changes to the committee’s charter were made to better align the panel with other VA charters and to rotate members whose terms have expired.
According to Jesse, committee chairman James Binns was asked to stay an additional year “to help in the transition of new members and oversee the completion” of a review that will help VA set Gulf War research priorities.
“The [committee] has led the way on crucial initiatives ever since. As a result of their work, VA has more than doubled the number of requested research projects on specific Gulf War areas of study,” Jesse said.
But Hardie called the changes a response to several moves by board members, including a June 2012 report from the full committee that sharply criticized VA’s efforts to understand and treat unexplained illnesses that affect some veterans of the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War.
In the report, the panel noted that VA trimmed its Gulf War research budget from $15 million in fiscal 2012 to $4.9 million in fiscal 2013 and never conducted a widespread study ordered by Congress in 2008 to understand the rates of multiple sclerosis among the troops who deployed.
VA also has failed to mount an effective research program into Gulf War illnesses, the panel noted.
“Until this occurs, we see no prospects for meaningful progress in VA Gulf War illness research,” the committee wrote.
Also, several board members testified in March at a hearing during in which a whistleblower charged that VA often sat on research that ran counter to its message on environmental exposures.
Board member Dr. Lea Steele told members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee that VA “ignores the science of research into Gulf War illness.”
“This pattern of chronic symptoms has been well documented. We also know that Gulf War illness is not a stress-induced or psychiatric disorder,” Steele said.
Jesse has said in testimony, and reiterated Tuesday, that VA does not believe the symptoms of Gulf War Illness are caused by mental health issues.
“The fact is VA does not endorse the notion some have put forward that these physical health symptoms experienced by Gulf War veterans arise as a result of mental health issues like post-traumatic stress,” Jesse said.
VA declined to name who was leaving the board. Spokesman Josh Taylor said they have not yet been determined.
Hardie, who has served since 2005, said the charter is not clear on how long a term lasts and several of the board members have continued serving even though they’ve never received renewal letters.
The dispute has drawn the attention of both the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees. A Senate staff member said the SVAC, chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is considering holding a hearing to investigate the issue.