On March 13, 2013 Dr. Steven S. Coughlin, previously the senior epidemiologist for the Veterans Affairs Office of Public Health (OPH), testified about the VA’s mishandling of veterans’ numerous medical problems. Coughlin specifically focused on the results of two surveys conducted by the VA; the first, on the 1991 Gulf War veterans, the second on “New Generation” veterans from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan. The surveys were designed to investigate “Gulf War Illness,” (GWI) which plagues an estimated 175,000 – 200,000 veterans from the Gulf War. GWI is categorized by a slew of medical issues, including chronic fatigue, headaches, joint pain and respiratory problems (including asthma and bronchitis).
The surveys were also designed to investigate whether the asthma and bronchitis suffered by many New Generation veterans can be clearly linked back to the wide-scale usage of burn pits on international military bases. One veteran, LeRoy Torres, recalls his experience at Iraq’s Joint Base Balad, “which hosted the biggest pit in the theater, incinerating an estimated 147 tons of waste a day as of 2008.” His wife, Rosie Torres, recalls, “[LeRoy] described to me the stench, the smell, the smoke, the plume, the residue that it would leave in their quarters — like white ash. He didn’t know why, but something even then told him to stop doing PT [physical training) outside.”
Coughlin researched cases like Torres' during the course of his tenure at the VA OPH, and was consistently struck by a lack of accountability - and even deceit - that marked the VA's response to the study's findings. According to the American Conservative, the VA avoided responsibility for veterans' care by downplaying and ignoring any evidence that would link veterans' wartime experiences to health issues back home.
During his hearing on March 13, Coughlin stated that "if the studies produce results that do not support OPH’s unwritten policy, they do not release them. This applies to data regarding adverse health consequences of environmental exposures, such as burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, and toxic exposures in the Gulf War. On the rare occasions when embarrassing study results are released, data are manipulated to make them unintelligible." When Coughlin confronted his supervisor about this concealment and distortion, he was allegedly "openly threatened and retaliated against."
This concealment and distortion comes at a great cost, as the survey on New Generation veterans (a ten year National Health Study) cost taxpayers $10 million. More broadly, though, Coughlin argued in his hearing that this is an issue that affects all Americans, because "after $120 million in taxpayer dollars spent in research over the last 10 years, the VA is no closer to targeted treatment for GWI than it was in the 1990s." While the cost to the taxpaying public is great, the cost to our veterans is even greater. The survey given to New Generation veterans produced information on exposure to pesticides, oil-well fires and pyridostigmine bromide tablets (prescribed to Gulf War soldiers to protect against nerve agents). Research now shows that these and other battlefield exposures have resulted in making an estimated 200,000 out of 697,000 Gulf War soldiers seriously ill. Nonetheless, while there exists a large body of evidence for the physical damage suffered by veterans because of these exposures, the VA insists upon calling GWI a psychosomatic condition brought on by battle stresses because this is cheaper than recognizing any real physical harm done. The American Conservative quotes Capt. Mark Lyles, a Navy scientist who’s been working on research based on a theory that a highly toxic “stew” of heavy metals found in the Iraqi dust is making veterans sick. Lyles explained, "You have to realize the cost associated with a real pathology. A psychosomatic [illness] can be treated, thus cured. At the very least we can put you on some pills and ‘fix’ your problem. If there is an environmental toxin or exposure that is the cause of this, and they produce permanent neurological damage, than that is forever.”
While hiding and manipulating the data from these surveys and the general mishandling of veterans’ issues is disheartening, there are some elements of hope in the fallout from Coughlin’s hearing. First, while the VA currently maintains that there are no long-term health risks associated with burn pits, the department has initiated a new study on whether there is any “relationship between deployments and illnesses such as cancer, respiratory disease, circulatory problems, neurological conditions and more.” If the results of the study are hidden or skewed, as they have been in the past, then we must take further steps to ensure the VA takes responsibility. There are several organizations involved in this work, including the Right To Heal and Burn Pits 360, run by Rosie Torres, the formerly quoted military wife dealing with her husband’s post-war medical problems. Finally, as Gulf War veteran Anthony Hardie explained in his testimony (also given on March 13), “There is an element of hope here…if we keep following this ‘don’t ask, don’t find’ strategy, then we’ll end up having an overburdened healthcare system and an overburdened disability claims system, and you’ll have more people like me who would do anything to get their health back and live a normal life.”