Testimony of Bernard Rostker

for the

Presidential Special Oversight Board Hearing

(April 4, 2000)


Senator Rudman and members of the Presidential Special Oversight Board, I am pleased to be here today to discuss the successor organization for the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses. The draft charter for this new office has been widely coordinated within the DoD, although it has not been forwarded to Secretary Cohen for his approval.

For the past four years, my office has been committed to doing everything possible to understand what happened during the Gulf War and to respond to the questions and concerns of veterans. As we move forward, I believe it is imperative that the lessons we have learned are used to address the needs and concerns of our servicemembers associated with deployment.

While we have taken numerous lessons away from our exhaustive investigation, perhaps the ultimate lesson to be learned is that the Department of Defense is not well-structured to deal with the non-traditional issues that arise after every deployment. As importantly, we have learned that we must stay connected to servicemembers and veterans, lest we risk damaging the trust they have in our leadership.

In the last few months, I've shared my view with you and many others that there is a need to continue the outreach, investigative, and deployment health related functions that OSAGWI currently performs. I have talked with leaders of major Veterans and Military Service Organizations and asked for their thoughts as I considered future needs. I have already shared VSO and MSO inputs with this board. I also discussed our vision for the future at a recent meeting of the Gulf War illnesses interagency working group.

In your Interim and Special reports, you discussed the need for and provided some thoughts on a new organization to focus on what happens during deployment and ensure the implementation of lessons learned. Your Interim Report recommended that the OSAGWI lessons learned concept be continued in and incorporated into the follow-on organization. This was reiterated in the Special Report which went on to point out the value of combining all veterans' activities and outreach activities into a single function of the follow-on organization. As your report states, quote, "Veterans outreach is imperative. DoD activities that foster comprehensive and robust dialog with and participation of veterans and veterans organization are essential."

I have carefully considered all the recommendations of the Board and believe that careful implementation of each point will ensure we keep faith with the veterans.

The new organization will be a strong voice on behalf of servicemembers and will ensure that the lessons learned from past operations are applied to future deployment, re-deployment, and post-deployment activities. It will build on and expand the work of OSAGWI, becoming a permanent part of the Department of Defense. Additionally, the new organization will continue to work with Veterans and Military Service Organizations and individual Gulf War veterans. We remain as committed as ever to helping veterans of the Gulf War and to addressing the many health issues that, unfortunately, remain.

The Special Assistant for Deployment Matters will operate under the direction of the Secretary of Defense and be responsible for independent review of deployment matters as they pertain to force health in the Department of Defense. Placement as a Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense ensures the independence and objectivity of the Special Assistant. This relationship also ensures the effectiveness of the Special Assistant in reviewing a broad range of issues and provides a basis for action essential to meeting the challenges of today's defense management environment.

A recent OSD memorandum concurs with this proposal and states further, "We understand the need for, and fully support the concept of institutionalizing this organization at the highest levels of the Department." The Joint Staff also endorses the importance of ensuring the continuation of OSAGWI's role in improving relations and developing trust with veterans; and helping guide force health protection policy and doctrine development based on lessons learned.

Within the Department, the OSA/DM will be responsible for accounting to the DoD leadership, Congress, the Executive Branch, veterans, and the American people for force health issues that arise during deployments and on the battlefield. The OSA/DM will proactively develop and ensure the implementation of lessons learned, and conduct outreach to the Total Force, Veterans and Military Service Organizations, veterans, and the public concerning military deployments, as envisioned in the DoD coordinated charter.

The OSA/DM will monitor and report on deployment matters and related activities, including aspects of doctrine, policy, readiness and medical research, as they pertain to the health of the force. This will be done in coordination with the DoD components having deployment policy, oversight, or execution responsibilities.

I am also working closely within the Department to ensure that the new office for deployment matters will complement the work of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs and the Joint Staff.

The new office will be substantially smaller than the existing organization and my goal is to transition to the smaller structure as we complete currently programmed work. As with the current organization, we will use contractors extensively to provide a high degree of flexibility and capabilities as needed.

In addition to initiating and coordinating actions within the DoD to ensure implementation of lessons learned and veterans outreach, the SA/DM will provide a single focal point between the DoD and other government agencies. This will provide the best avenue for the exchange of information between the DoD and the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Service and the new Military and Veterans Health Coordinating Board.

We are reminded daily of the challenges faced by our armed forces deployed around the globe protecting our national interests in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. The Department of Defense has a responsibility and obligation to protect the health and welfare of the men and women we routinely put in harm's way. It is a commitment we must not take lightly, and it is not one we can pass on to another agency. The Office of the Special Assistant for Deployment Matters, building on the lessons learned and the commitments made by OSAGWI, is uniquely able to represent veterans and servicemembers. I made a commitment nearly four years ago to our Gulf War veterans and believe we must continue that legacy for all veterans-past, present, and future.

I request your continued support of our efforts and the establishment of the Office of the Special Assistant for Deployment Matters. I am pleased to respond to any questions you may have.

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