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VA rejects link between Gulf War service and cancers

Jul. 7, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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 on Jan. 18, 1991.
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 on Jan. 18, 1991. (Peter Dejon/AP)
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WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs has rejected a request from members of Congress and veterans advocates to make brain cancer, lung cancer and migraines presumptive conditions for Gulf War veterans. Officials said they cannot prove the high rate of these illnesses among Gulf War vets are related to military service.

VA officials said the number of brain cancer deaths for soldiers exposed to sarin gas was too low to be conclusive, though it was double the rate of soldiers not exposed.

And the rate of lung cancer deaths, though 15 percent higher than those who did not serve in the 1991 Gulf War, is "inconclusive" because researchers did not know how many of the servicemembers smoke.

"I'm disappointed with their decision, but hold out hope that further studies will convince the VA," Rep. Timothy Walz, D-Minn., told USA Today. "We must ensure our brave veterans get the care they need, and this is part of that effort."

If a veteran is diagnosed with a presumptive condition, Veterans Affairs is required to assume that it is military-connected, and that the veteran is then entitled to medical or disability benefits associated with the diagnosis.

Those exposed to smoke after Saddam Hussein set his oil wells on fire, as well as to sarin gas after the U.S. bombed a munitions plant in Khamisayah, Iraq, saw an increased risk of brain cancer, according to a study Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., and Walz cited in letters to former VA secretary Eric Shinseki in March.

As many as 100,000 troops may have been exposed to sarin, a nerve agent, according to the Defense Department, but a recent study shows more may have been affected.

Gulf War vets also saw a "significant relative excess" of lung cancer, according to a second study. And a third study showed that veterans with chronic fatigue syndrome or Gulf War Illness were likely to also suffer migraines, the lawmakers wrote.

"I am very interested in your opinion of whether the studies enclosed are sufficient to add these three health problems to the list of presumptives related to Gulf War Illness," Coffman wrote in March. "If you believe they are not, please detail the VA's current and planned efforts related to these three problems."

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