As Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill., closed the meeting of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee on health Thursday, Thomas R. Mikolajcik asked to be heard.
Angered by the testimony of officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the retired Air Force brigadier general’ voice wavered as he told the story of George. Like Mikolajcik, George suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
An Air Force veteran who served in the Gulf but didn’t see combat, George isn’t eligible to receive any aid from the VA for his treatments. To foot his medical bills, he was forced to mortgage his South Carolina home, said Mikolajcik, of Charleston, S.C.
The officials had hemmed and hawed about whether ALS and Gulf War military service are related, and if veterans of other conflicts should receive ALS treatment through the VA.
“Forget more studies. Help the veterans,” Mikolajcik said, his voice bellowing, as he positioned his wheelchair in view of the VA officials. “I’m sorry to be so emotional, but my emotion’s honest.”
Mikolajcik was one of three ill Persian Gulf War veterans who testified about the lack of explanations or treatment in the 16 years since 25 to 30 percent of the war’s 700,000 veterans developed chronic multi-symptom illnesses, known as Gulf War illness.
All three characterized the VA’s treatment of Gulf veterans as disorganized and ill-informed about the latest treatments for symptoms as varied as ALS and multiple sclerosis to chronic fatigue and skin lesions.
Mikolajcik challenged the subcommittee to establish an ALS Task Force, comprising government agencies, ALS researchers, private institutes and patients, to give direction to study and treatment of the disease. Committee members were receptive to the idea.
Mikolajcik suggested the project be named The Hope Project – Helping Other People Endure.
Hope is something Gulf War veterans diagnosed with ALS are given little of, Mikolajcik said. When he was diagnosed in October 2003, he was told he might have one to three years to live. What researchers know now about the disease varies little from what was known 50 years ago, he said.
According to a 2005 study by the Harvard School of Public Health, all military veterans have a 60 percent greater risk for developing ALS than the rest of the population. Gulf War veterans, however, have an incidence rate twice that of all other veterans, according to Lea Steele, scientific director of the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses.
Research now consistently identifies a link between Gulf War illness and exposure to neurotoxins during Operation Desert Storm’s six weeks of combat, but for years the VA and other researchers attributed sickness to severe stress.
Among the suspect neurotoxins are particulate matter from oil well fires and experimental vaccines and pills to protect against possible exposure to anthrax or nerve gas.
The federal government has spent more than $300 million on Gulf War illness research. However, most was dedicated to research supporting the theory that these illnesses were stress-related, said James Binns, chairman of the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses.
Created by Congress in 1998, his group is part of the VA. But it challenges the position of the VA Office of Public Health and Environmental Hazards, representatives of which also testified before the subcommittee.
Binns read from a fact sheet the environmental hazards office recently released that asserted: “Gulf War veterans suffer from a wide range of common illnesses, which might be expected in any group of veterans their age.”
“That is utter hogwash,” Binns said.
Lawrence Deyton, chief public health and environmental hazards officer of the Veterans Health Administration, testified that the VA has made an effort to improve clinical care for Gulf War veterans, but Secretary R. James Nicholson believes the study of ALS in Gulf War veterans “needs more research” before the agency would be willing to admit a connection.
Deyton did, however, agree that Mikolajcik’s suggestion of an ALS Task force was “very sound” and said the VA would “want to be a major player in assisting with that.”