WASHINGTON — The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs is putting together legislation to give autonomy back to a Gulf War illness advisory committee that has been stripped of its independence over the past year.
The legislation would give the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses independent budget control and would require that its members be appointed by congressional veterans committees.
"The committee is essentially having its legs cut out from underneath it," said Diane Zumato, legislative director for AMVETS, a veterans' service organization. "Veterans Affairs had a good idea in having this oversight group, and now it seems that they don't really like what they're hearing because the group isn't parroting what VA is saying."
Last week, Veterans Affairs notified the advisory committee that it could no longer release committee reports or recommendations without written VA approval.
In the past year, Veterans Affairs has:
■ Notified the advisory committee members that all but one of them would be replaced.
■ Ended the tenure of Jim Binns, a Vietnam veteran and former principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense under President George H.W. Bush, as chairman of the board.
■ Removed its charge to review the effectiveness of VA research.
■ Moved back toward looking at stress as a cause of Gulf War illness, rather than following up on evidence that it is caused by environmental exposures, such as to insect repellent, anti-nerve agent pills and Sarin gas, as recent studies have shown.
VA did not address the committee's issues about losing their autonomy directly, but sent a statement about Gulf War illness in general:
"VA agrees that there are health issues associated with service in the Gulf War, and is committed to ensuring Gulf War Veterans have access to the care and benefits they have earned and deserve," the statement reads. "VA is clear in our commitment to treating these health issues and does not support the notion some have put forward that these health symptoms arise as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues that arose as a result of being deployed."
The statement said that VA appreciates the "valuable advice" the research advisory committee provides "on research studies, plans and strategies aimed at improving our ability to serve Gulf War veterans."
While legislators were not able to speak about the legislation because it has not been finalized, Zumato said AMVETS members would reach out to every Congress member this week to talk about environmental toxins like those the 1991 Gulf War veterans were exposed to. She said organizers would make an issue of Gulf War illness so more recent vets -- as well as future vets -- would have access to care for all potential toxic exposures.
"It's not just Gulf War," said Zumato, who joined the Women's Army Corps before it was incorporated into the Army in 1978. "It's anybody whose been exposed to any kind of toxic environment and now they have a very strong possibility of having illnesses caused by those exposures."
She said she fears the veterans' injuries will continue to be ignored, or to be treated as mental health injuries, rather than physical injuries, to avoid having to pay medical costs.
VA has said that it disagrees with the advisory committee, and that it agrees Gulf War Illness is a physical ailment.
This week, Binns sent a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki letter that included 16 pages of research review that VA had prohibited the committee from including in its research report.
"That whole 16 pages is basically one example after another of VA's staff efforts to reintroduce the idea that stress caused this problem," Binns said.
The advisory committee was formed in 1997 after a congressional report found that VA's work on "Gulf War issues" was "irreparably flawed." Congress found that VA had focused most, if not all, of its attention on psychiatric causes of the illness.
Symptoms of Gulf War illness include fatigue, muscle pain, cognitive issues, rashes and irritable bowel syndrome. Recently, researchers have found changes in veterans' brains that signify physical degeneration, and that a greater number of troops were exposed to small doses of sarin gas after the Air Force bombed an Iraqi chemical factory.