Statement by Dr. Bernard Rostker, Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense for Gulf War Illness

Before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, Subcommittee on Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations

January 21, 1997

Mr. Chairman, on 12 November, 1996, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Dr. John White, appointed me Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses. This action was part of a broader set of initiatives undertaken on 25 September, 1996, to assess the Department of Defense's Gulf War Illnesses program in view of recent events, to include the reports that soldiers may have been exposed to chemical agents during the destruction of the storage site at Khamisiyah.

My mission as the special assistant for Gulf War illnesses is to serve as the DOD coordinator for all issues relating to Gulf War illnesses. Two vital aspects of this mission are to ensure that we learn everything possible about the suspected chemical exposure events which occurred during and after the Persian Gulf conflict and to promote improved communication with Gulf War veterans on the relevant health care issues. This mission is critical not only because we have a moral duty to our veterans, but also because we must understand what is making our people sick so that we can initiate the vital changes required to protect our forces in the future. We must ensure that DOD puts into place all required military doctrine, plus personnel and medical policies, procedures and equipment so as to prevent future repetition of the problem.

To quote the President: "I want to assure all of you that we will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to investigate Gulf War Illnesses, and to provide our Gulf War veterans with the medical care they need. There are mysteries still unanswered and we must do more." It is my business to leave no stone unturned.

To carry out this mission I have expanded by an order of magnitude the Department of Defense's investigations organization. The original team of 12 is now more than a 110-people strong and I have completely revamped the way we do business. We have the investigators and analysts necessary to perform a full review of currently known exposures, and I have the authority to search out and pursue reports of any new incidents.

My expanded efforts build on earlier work by re-focusing and substantially increasing the level of commitment. Much of that increase is focused on incidents which occurred during the Gulf War, the hazardous exposure that may have resulted from these incidents, and the broader implications of such incidents. We are doing this with renewed dedication to communicate with all veterans who served and fought in Southwest Asia in 1991, including those veterans who are still on active duty, serve in the Reserve or National Guard, and those who have returned to full-time civilian life.

I have expanded into new areas to initiate a pro-active, risk communication strategy with the two-way communications between DOD, the VA and the Gulf War veterans as recommended by the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veteran's Illnesses (PAC). Today, when a veteran calls our telephone hotline to offer information, the veteran receives a follow-up call and is interviewed by a trained investigator who ensures that information is incorporated into our case files. These call backs not only provide an in-depth debrief, but for the future, a single point of contact between my office and the reporting Gulf War veteran. The process involves the veteran in the investigative process in a significant and meaningful way. Our call back team works in two shifts, from 7am to 11pm Monday through Friday. The responses from the veterans have been extremely positive.

We also collaborate very closely with veterans service organizations (VSO). For example, on December 11, 1996 we hosted the VSOs at a demonstration of the chemical equipment used during the Gulf War, particularly the M8 alarm, 256 test kits and the FOX chemical reconnaissance vehicle. They appreciated the opportunity to become more familiar with the equipment that has often been written about in the press and was the subject of debate in Congress.

We have initiated a formal structure for our incident investigations. We are preparing a series of narratives that summarize what we know about such incidents as Khamisiyah, the Marine breaching operation, operational logs, Fox alarms, pyridostigmine bromide (PB) tablets and every other issue under investigation. The narratives will be a status report to the American people of what we know, when we knew it, and what actions we plan to take. I expect that this will be the basis for us to begin to address the concerns of Gulf War veterans and their families.

We are building on the major health program initiated by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, Dr. Stephen Joseph. Under his leadership, a comprehensive clinical evaluation program was established in which more than 38,000 Gulf War veterans registered - 30,000 veterans have requested a medical examination. The Department of Veterans Affairs has entered another 63,000-plus veterans into their Persian Gulf Registry.

In addition to forming my organization, the Deputy Secretary of Defense generated a number of other important initiatives. In the area of research, the DOD has committed to spend $12M to study a wide range of medical issues related to the Gulf War. Further, the DOD is prepared to spend another $15M to study the long-term effects of chemical and other hazardous exposures, including low- level chemical exposure.

At this time, therefore, I am withdrawing the DOD staff paper published on the GulfLINK homepage which discounts low-level exposure as the cause for Gulf War illnesses. In doing this, I note that the PAC concluded and current scientific evidence does not support a causal link between low-level chemical exposures and undiagnosed Gulf War illnesses. However, the PAC also recommended that additional research is warranted. We concur in this assessment and plan to fund the appropriate research. I approach this subject with a completely open mind. Our research agenda is clear evidence of this.

Dr. White also initiated a review by the Institute of Medicine of the DOD clinical health examination protocols in light of the possibility of chemical exposure; a review by the Army Inspector General of military operations at Khamisiyah; and a review by the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Oversight of the circumstances surrounding the handling of intelligence data concerning Khamisiyah.

Further, Dr. White requested that the National Academy of Sciences provide a mechanism for oversight to meet the President's call for an independent, open, and comprehensive examination of health-related issues and assessment of the multiple issues related to the protection of our forces. This initiative is in addition to the PAC's oversight of the investigation into low-level chemical exposure events and monitoring of government-wide implementation of its recommendations.

I would like to take a moment to comment on an issue raised by this Committee on 10 December 1996, concerning its perception that field commanders in the Gulf dismissed what soldiers and Marines considered to be valid chemical detections. Marine Corps GySgt George Grass, Major Randy Hebert, and Army Major Michael Johnson are Americans whose service we honor and whose testimony we welcome. We applaud these men for coming forward to describe events about which we are all deeply concerned. The clarity and detail of their observations contributed significantly to our investigations, and we are examining each and every one of the incidents they reported. Their close, personal observations, however, must be taken in the context of all the information available to us as we go forward in our investigation.

As you see from the illustration provided in the handout before you, I believe we can indeed corroborate one of the initial detections cited by GySgt Grass. However, it is important to note that the same log that records his initial NBC alert also records the action taken in response to that alert and the final determination no chemical warfare agents were present. Let me be more specific. On 28 February 1991, there is an entry in the CENTCOM Chemical Log published on GulfLINK that reads "CWO James called: 1st MARDIV has come across an ammo bunker complex (QT75393910) with suspected chemical munitions. The Fox (GCMS) has come up with indications of small conc. of sulfur mustard after numerous tests." The next day, another log entry states "CWO James called back. The suspect bunker was checked out thoroughly--no chemical munitions found."

It is also important to note that unit commanders did what was right and responded appropriately by directing their troops to don chemical protective gear, cordon off the area, and wait for properly trained troops to enter and investigate the bunker.

While in this case the chemical logs help clear up the issue of the ammo bunker reported to this committee, in other cases the same logs identify and confirm detections we cannot explain. This includes the Czech reports which US equipment could not confirm. (Czech detectors were more sensitive than US equipment, which may help explain why we could not confirm their reports.)

In conclusion, we are whole-heartedly committed to finding out everything we can about any factor impacting on Gulf War illnesses. This is absolutely necessary, not only because it is right for our veterans, but also because it is imperative for the future safety of our troops. I invite our veterans to assist by contributing their own observations to our investigation. They may do so by calling our toll free telephone number, 1-800-472-6719 and help us by becoming part of our team.

Thank You

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