Statement By Dr. John White

Deputy Secretary Of Defense

Before The Senate Armed Services Committee

On Gulf War Illnesses

27 February 1997

Mr. Chairmen, thank you for the opportunity to appear before the committee this morning to discuss the Department of Defense's efforts concerning the illnesses experienced by some of our men and women who served in the Gulf War.

In President Clinton's last Veterans Day address he said "I want to assure all of you that we will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to investigate these cases and to provide our Gulf War veterans with the medical care they need. . . . There are mysteries still unanswered, and we must do more. But the United States will not forget the people who have served us, and we will discharge our obligations to those who served in the Persian Gulf."

I want the members of this Committee, the American people and most importantly, the brave women and men who served in the Gulf War, to know that the Department of Defense takes this responsibility very seriously. Indeed, it is one of my highest priorities as Deputy Secretary of Defense. It is an issue I focus on personally.

We are ruling nothing in; we are ruling nothing out. We continue to disclose fully everything we learn. This is an interactive process -- a true give-and-take with our servicemen and women, investigators, the scientific community and other experts, the Intelligence Community and other federal departments and agencies, our allies, and of course, this Committee and the Congress.

Our approach to the problem of Gulf War veterans' illnesses is far-reaching, inclusive and comprehensive -- we must leave no stone unturned. Most importantly, we are taking care of those who served in the Gulf War and are ill. That is our primary obligation.

Our efforts are not only remedial, but preventive. We will treat those who are sick, and try to identify the causes of their illnesses. Just as importantly, we want to make sure that if future post-war illness can be prevented, then we will do everything to prevent it. That is the responsibility we have to every man and woman who serves in the US Armed Forces.

The health and safety of our forces was a primary concern of commanders at every level during Desert Shield and Desert Storm. We deployed to the Gulf a large array of medical units on land and sea, backed up by a large and responsive medical evacuation system. The recent review by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee of General Schwarzkopf 's personal logs points to his constant concern and that of all our commanders for the safety of our troops; as I am sure you will hear shortly from my military colleagues at this table.

After the war, starting in 1992, some veterans started to complain of a wide range of ailments. The history of Gulf War Illnesses is well known to this Committee and the American People. I will not go over it in detail here today, but I would like to make a number of points.

As you know, the Department of Defense has been intensively investigating Gulf War veterans' illnesses and their potential causes. Initially, the focus of that investigation was on the health of the veterans of the war. We focused on reaching out to them, taking care of those who are ill and their families and improving our clinical evaluation procedures. Along with our colleagues at the Department of Veterans Affairs, this has been and will continue to be our top priority: taking care of all those who served and require medical attention.

But as we evaluate and treat the symptoms of Gulf War veterans' illnesses, we are also investigating events that may have caused the illnesses. We are doing this from three approaches: First, we are supporting and using a substantial body of medical research and clinical evaluations to understand the possible causes of illness. Second, we are asking veterans of the Gulf War what they saw or knew that could suggest possible causes of illness. And finally, we have mounted a major investigative effort to learn more about events that occurred during the war itself that may shed light on possible causes of illness. This investigation includes -- but certainly is not limited to -- potential exposures to chemical, nerve and other agents in the Gulf War.

In 1995, consistent with the President's clear guidance to pursue all possible investigative leads, the Department of Defense began an extensive effort to review relevant intelligence and operational documents relating to the war, established a team to investigate specific incidents that might shed light on possible causes of illnesses, and began to declassify and make public as much of this information as possible. These efforts followed earlier inquiries by the Defense Science Board, Congressional panels, and the Institute of Medicine. Over the past year, we have benefited from the work of the President's Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illnesses. The Final Report of that committee contained a number of recommendations. We are implementing all of them. Finally, last fall I ordered a reassessment and an intensification of our efforts, substantially increasing the level of effort the Department is applying to this issue.

I ordered the reassessment for a number of reasons. As this Committee knows, we announced last summer the likelihood that American troops had been involved in the destruction of chemical munitions at a site known as "Khamisiyah" after the war. The effort to find out what happened at Khamisiyah overwhelmed our investigative team, leaving them little time for other investigations. Therefore, I became concerned about the level of effort the Department was providing across the board on our investigative activities. Khamisiyah is important, but so are the other incidents and investigation leads we need to pursue.

Second, I was concerned that the actual focus of our efforts was not broad enough. Our initial focus, understandably, was on the identification of soldiers and the treatment of them and their illnesses. This, of course, must continue. We also need to increase our emphasis on the operational aspects of what went on during the war. But even further, I wanted to make sure that we were looking broadly, thinking openly, and following information wherever it may lead. I wanted to be sure that we were not thinking too narrowly or using paradigms that are too rigid and restrictive. When new information becomes available, we must be prepared to assimilate it and to evaluate it objectively.

Third, I wanted to be absolutely certain that those who served in the Gulf War knew that we were reaching out to them and that we had a two-way communication system going -- from us to them and back again.

Finally, I wanted to get the word of our commitment, the extent of our effort, and our findings to the public at large. I wanted to emphasize that it is an open process, that we are looking for information and that we are providing the information we have to the public.

I regarded Khamisiyah as a watershed event. Not only did it provoke the recognition that our investigative efforts needed to be expanded, but it also reinforced the need to transition our investigative efforts from a focus on clinical symptoms and medical phenomena to a focus on events, on what actually occurred in the Gulf War and what it might mean for our military forces.

Consequently, we initiated the following actions as a result of that September reassessment:

With these initiatives in place, our intensified investigative efforts are now beginning to produce results. Some 23,000 pages of documents have now been declassified and placed on the Internet, easily accessible to all who wish to read them. Our effort here is to identify information about any incidents that may shed light on possible causes of illness. Over the next six months our investigative effort will shift increasingly to focus on specific operational matters as we put greater energy into reconstructing what actually happened during the war.

Two days ago, on Tuesday, we released an interim report on the events that took place at Khamisiyah. The newly released Khamisiyah case narrative is the first in a series to be issued in the coming months that will cover all the major chemical incidents during the war. Each case narrative is designed to be the basis for a dialogue with those who served in the Gulf, so that we can make the most complete report possible. In other words, for the first time, the public will be able to read in one place an account that is as complete as we can make it, and they will be able to see the supporting documentation as well. These narratives will be available on our GulfLINK web site. I stress to the committee that this is an interim -- not a final -- report. It answers a number of questions about Khamisiyah, but leaves others unanswered. We are very hopeful that we can fill in the missing pieces in the months ahead.

Next month we expect to complete our analysis of the over 20 thousand questionnaires sent to soldiers that we believe may have been within 50 kilometers of Khamisiyah when the munitions were destroyed in 1991. We now better appreciate the limits of our data base concerning exactly were troops were on each and every day of the war and recognize that we may have missed a significant number of troops who may have passed through the area during that period. Next month, we also expect to receive the final report by the Institute for Defense Analyses of their efforts to model potential dispersal patterns from the demolitions at Khamisiyah. Later in the spring, I expect to receive the reports from the Army Inspector General and the Special Assistant for Intelligence Oversight on their independent inquiries into Khamisiyah. Together, these efforts will help us fill in the blanks and understand more completely what happened at Khamisiyah and afterward.

We are also looking forward to the National Academy of Sciences convening of an expert committee to advise the Department on the larger question of the health of our troops when deployed to unfamiliar environments, drawing fully on the lessons learned from Desert Storm, and to advise us on any additional initiatives we should be pursuing with respect to the illnesses of our Gulf War veterans.

Early last month the President's Advisory Committee presented their report to the President. We are now implementing the PAC's recommendations on how to improve our Gulf War Illnesses program. In the area of health research we have expanded our research efforts, committing $27 million for 1997. The Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program and the VA Registry continue to evaluate Gulf War veterans, and our Military Health Services System continues to care for those who are ill.

As you know, the PAC was particularly and correctly critical about our lack of a risk communication program. We are taking steps to address that concern. In December we established a program to "debrief" veterans who call our 800 hot-line concerning environmental incidents that occurred in the Gulf. This includes any possible exposure to chemical agents. To date, almost 90 percent of those calling the hot line have received a return call and debrief by a trained interviewer. We have gained valuable information, and we now have a one-on-one point of contact between a concerned veteran and the Department. The response from the veterans and the veterans' service organizations has been very positive. They tell us they appreciate the fact the someone in the government is listening. We are also improving the GulfLINK web site to keep our veterans informed of our progress.

It is very important that DOD conduct this systematic review of the potential chemical or biological exposures during the Gulf War, because a very important outcome of this entire effort will be increased future protection of our soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen.

As you know the PAC has been extended by the President to provide oversight. We will provide full and timely public disclosure on a continuing basis and welcome oversight from the PAC and this committee.

The scope and magnitude of the initiatives I have just outlined demonstrate that the Department of Defense is fully committed to investigating thoroughly all matters possibly related to Gulf War illnesses and to making the results of those investigations -- and the manner in which we have conducted them -- completely open and available for public scrutiny. This obligation -- the obligation to take care of our people, to research thoroughly the causes of their illnesses, to investigate and understand the events that occurred during and after the Gulf War, and to plan for future deployments to unfamiliar environments -- is at the core of the Department's compact with our men and women in uniform. I am committed, the Department is committed, and Secretary Cohen is committed to fulfilling our obligation to them and to fulfilling President Clinton's pledge to "leave no stone unturned in our efforts to investigate [their] illnesses, and to provide [them] with the medical care they need." Thank you very much.

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