Guest Column: VA Confirms Massive 1991 Casualties

By Denise Nichols

As the Bush administration and the U.S. military gear up for an anticipated invasion of Iraq, both our national political leaders and military service personnel should pay close heed to some new startling statistics on casualties from the first Gulf War in 1991.

The National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition, of which I am vice chairman, has analyzed the latest Department of Veterans Affairs report on Gulf War I personnel, including medical illnesses and deaths in the 11 years since Operation Desert Storm. (To read the actual VA report, "May 2002 Gulf War Veterans Information," dated Sept. 10, 2002, click on the hyperlink for the full breakdown of the statistics. To read the Coalition''s full study of the VA report, see our analysis.)

The most striking disclosure in the VA report is that of the total number of Gulf War I casualties that have been documented in the decade following since the end of the 100-hour ground war in early 1991.

Rather than the conflict totals of 148 combat deaths, 145 non-combat fatalities and 213 wounded service personnel tallied at the end of the fighting (a .1 percent overall casualty rate for the 537,000 U.S. personnel who served in the Persian Gulf region), the true casualty figures have skyrocketed over the past decade as a result of Gulf War Illness (GWI).

In fact, 36 percent of eligible Gulf War I veterans over 206,861 have filed medical claims with the VA for illnesses stemming from their Desert Storm I service, which is an astronomical number in comparison to claims filed after previous wars. (This 36- percent figure is the actual casualty rate from Gulf War I, not the 27-percent figure that the VA itself estimates in terms of claims granted.)

Critical information contained in the VA report includes:

The Executive Summary reveals that 82 percent (572,833) of the 696,778 troops who participated in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm are eligible for VA benefits, including medical care:

In the same summary chart, there is another astounding disclosure.

The report notes that for the subcategory of "Gulf War era" veterans (those who did not serve in the actual theater of war), 82 percent of those who have applied have received VA medical claims approval, in sharp contrast with only 76 percent of actual Gulf War veterans. One must ask why the VA is honoring medical claims for those ho did not serve in the war zone at a higher rate than those who did.

These statistics raise a number of questions that the VA itself has yet to address: Is there discrimination by the VA in regards to the treatment of war veterans and those who did not serve in the war zone? Is there a lack of accountability for caring for our Gulf War I veterans, and if so why? Are the ""era"" veterans showing a higher illness rate themselves due to any number of factors - including the utilization of anthrax vaccine causing illness-related casualties? Is there a potential for other causes from secondary vector sources?

And then there is the death rate for Gulf War I veterans.

Section 5 of the VA report confirms that 8,013 Gulf War I veterans or 1 percent of the 696,778 U.S. personnel who served in the conflict during the period Aug. 2, 1990- July 31, 1991), have died. Moreover, the 1-percent death rate has occurred in less than 12 years.

The death rate for Gulf War "era" veterans is slightly less, at 0.7 percent. The death rate for deployed troops was 0.9156 percent. The death rate for all who served in theater is 0.536 percent. This data is deeply concerning because it is an incomplete count and occurred in a population (physically fit cohort) considered more healthy than the American public as a whole.

Although the numbers of service-connected deaths included in the May 2002 VA data are considered ""raw data,"" we must still be concerned. Those figures are most likely incomplete and would probably be low in comparison to the actual figures. (For example, the deaths reported in the VA study do not include deaths of those Gulf War veterans who died after leaving the service and who did not apply for VA medical care.)

The confusing raw data on deaths justifies a more comprehensive study on postwar veterans'' deaths, including How many of the conflict veterans have died, what are the data sources for those figures and what data was not used to get this figure, and what were the causes of death.

Another astonishing disclosure all but buried in the VA report is that a large number of service personnel who were deployed into the Persian Gulf region after the war ended on Feb. 28, 1991, have also become ill. They have received anthrax vaccine and oral polio vaccine, they have been exposed to the theater of operations that was contaminated by chemicals and depleted uranium.

These startling figures come after a decade of U.S. government nonfeasance toward Gulf War Illness. Gulf War veteran groups have tried for over 12 years to get the DoD, VA, Congress and several administrations to admit their lack of accountability and to apply lessons learned to improve the medical care of injured and ill combat veterans.

The civilian public is no better prepared because of this lack of utilizing ""lessons learned"" by the military. Doctors and researchers who have seen the reality of Gulf War Illness have desperately tried to help but have been ignored and some have even been attacked professionally. A handful of these doctors and researchers continue to try to get the message out in any way possible but still face roadblocks and bureaucratic opposition.

We call for immediate joint hearings involving both the Senate and the House to resolve the urgent needs of Gulf War I veterans. Hearings need to also determine the combat readiness of our current force and the allocation and use of medical resources to meet anticipated future needs. We owe this as a nation to those combat veterans who have and will defend our cherished freedoms.

We call for Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi to immediately implement the Public Law signed by President Bush on Dec. 27, 2001. We call on Secretary Principi to address the comments on the missing data regarding cancers and diagnosed illnesses in Gulf War veterans and to demonstrate a proactive stance in finally meeting the needs of Gulf War veterans from 1991. We also call on Secretary Principii to make public what improvements have been made in the past 12 years, to prove that the VA is truly ready for Round Two in the Persian Gulf.

We call for Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld to preserve any data collected in the past 12 years since the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. We call for Secretary Rumsfeld to report on what really happened in the 1991 conflict that may have caused GWI. We also call on Secretary Rumsfeld to report on how the armed services are prepared to treat the next round of casualties from the Persian Gulf.

As we watch yet another group of warriors prepare once more for war in the Gulf region, we know that existing force protection, medical care and reporting accountability deficiencies have not been resolved. If we continue to fail to provide medical care for previous combat casualties, how can we expect any of our nation's sons or daughters to willfully participate in combat in the future?

Nichols, a Gulf War veteran and retired U.S. Air Force Reserve major, is Vice Chairman of the National Vietnam Veteran and Gulf War Veterans Coalition. She can be reached at DSNurse@aol.com.