Soldiers with the U.S. army's 7th Corps huddle in a bunker in Eastern Saudi Arabia with gas masks and chemical suits just after U.S. planes started bombing Iraq in this Jan. 18, 1991 file photo. U.S. troops wore the protective outfits during the 1991 Persian Gulf War because of concern that Saddam Hussein might arm Scud missiles with dangerous agents from his chemical weapons stash. (Peter Dejong/AP)
WASHINGTON — A House bill that passed Wednesday will restore autonomy to a Gulf War illness board that had been stripped away by the Department of Veterans Affairs earlier this year.
The Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses had been established as an independent board after Congress called VA’s work on Gulf War illnesses “irreparably flawed” in 1997.
But over the past year, VA has replaced all but one of the board members, including the board chairman, and removed the board’s charge to review the effectiveness of the VA. The department has also pushed research that looks toward stress as a cause, rather than environmental factors, of Gulf War illness.
VA also recently required the board to obtain VA’s written approval before releasing any reports about their oversight of VA. Soon after, they removed the board chairman’s research report from a letter he wrote to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The Gulf War Health Research Reform Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., requires that the majority of the committees’s members be appointed by the board chairman, and returns oversight responsibilities for Gulf War research. The bill passed the House by a voice vote.
“The committee shall exert independent control of the budget allocations, staffing levels and expenditures, personnel decisions and processes, procurements, and other administrative and management functions of the committee,” the bill states.
It also adds a requirement that animal research be considered by VA in the same way human studies are. This has come up in the past when researchers were able to show that rats exposed to the same toxins service members were exhibited the same symptoms, but VA did not include that research in its reports.
The committee also would not require VA approval before releasing its reports.
About a quarter of the 700,000 veterans who served in the 1991 Gulf War developed symptoms that include chronic headaches, widespread pain, memory and concentration problems, persistent fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, skin abnormalities and mood disturbances. Researchers have linked changes in veterans’ brains to symptoms, as well as connecting different groups of veterans to symptoms based on where they served: anti-nerve-agent pills and Scud missiles for forward-deployed troops and pesticides for support personnel in the rear.
The bill must be taken up and passed by the Senate for it to take effect.