Deserting Our Troops
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior editor for TomPaine.com.
The Army and Air Force failed to obey Congress' orders to
create baseline medical records for soldiers sent to overseas war
zones, in this case Iraq, Congress' General Accounting Office (GAO)
concludes in a just-released report.
"The percentage of Army and Air Force service members missing
one or both of their pre- and post-deployment health assessments
ranged from 38 to 98 percent of our samples," the GAO, Congress'
investigative arm, found. "Moreover, when health assessments were
conducted, as many as 45 percent of them were not done within the
required time frames."
These statistics confirm what veterans of the 1990-91 Persian
Gulf War and members of Congress have been saying for months: the
Pentagon has been ignoring a law whose primary intention was avoiding
a repeat of the military's mistakes surrounding its handling of
veteran illnesses that have become known as Gulf War Syndrome.
After the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91, tens of thousands of
veterans became sick with mysterious illnesses. But because the
Pentagon did not have baseline medical records for each soldier in
that conflict, it was very slow to acknowledge and act on its
responsibility to provide health care for these veterans.
So, in 1997, Congress passed a Public Law 105-85 requiring the
military to conduct detailed pre- and post-deployment medical records
for every soldier sent into a war zone. The GAO says the
military "did not comply" with that requirement in the Iraq War. It
also found the Department of Defense (DOD) "did not maintain a
complete, centralized database of service members' medical
assessments and immunizations."
The issue has been simmering in veteran's circles for some
time, but with the Pentagon announcing last week a new round of
National Guard deployments to Iraq, it raises the question anew: will
the Pentagon fully implement the law?
"We've been calling for it. It's time for it to happen," said
Steven Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Veterans
Center. "We've had the hearings on the hill. We've done the Kabuki
dance. [Undersecretary of Defense for Health Affairs William]
Winkenwerder says they don't need to do the screening. The GAO says
it's insufficient. Now what?"
Robinson said he and other veterans advocates will be speaking
to members of the House Armed Services Committee -- which requested
the GAO report -- and Veterans Affairs Committee this week to see
what the next steps may be.
Veterans' advocates became aware last fall and winter that
troops being sent to Iraq were not being examined as required.
Instead, the military gave soldiers a short questionnaire to fill
out. After congressional hearings and public criticism from veterans
last winter, the Pentagon said it would conduct post-deployment exams
and expand its questionnaire.
The GAO report was based on investigations at five military
bases: Fort Campbell; Fort Drum; Hurlburt Field and Travis Air Force
Base. It recommended that the Secretary of Defense and undersecretary
responsible for military health "establish an effective quality
assurance program that will help ensure that the military services
comply with the force health protection and surveillance requirements
for all service members."
In a Sept. 11 letter responding to the GAO report, Assistant
Secretary of Defense William Winkenwerder said his office "has
already established a quality assurance program for pre- and post-
deployment health assessments." Winkenwerder said this program has
been in place "since June 2003," which would be several months after
Congress held hearings on the law and launched the GAO investigation.
While it remains to be seen what impact the GAO report will
have on military health policies, many soldiers now in Iraq and their
family members say the Pentagon has all-but ignored the requirement
for creating the baseline medical records.
"My husband [an Army Reservist]'s physical was waived before he
left," wrote one member of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), an
activist group of families with relatives in the military in Iraq.
Those contacted requested their names not be used.
"Myself and my wife were given the anthrax and small pox
vaccines and were not given a choice in the matter," wrote a
soldier. "No screening was done before these vaccines were given to
see if there might be complications from a genetic or health
standpoint. No blood work was done on us besides a few general
questions from a colonel."
"My son has returned home and as far as I know no one has made
any mention of medical testing," wrote another member of MFSO. "They
arrived back the first week in August... [They] gave him a
questionnaire to look over. There are three sections, but he said
[questions] in the last section, more current symptoms didn't seem
relative for now."
These anecdotes corroborate the GAO's findings: that the pre-
and post-deployment medical exams were largely an after-thought, not
a policy priority.
Among the soldiers contacted, several said they were aware
there could be health consequences of their military services. What
they and their family members most frequently cited was exposure to
byproducts of depleted uranium (DU) munitions. DU is a slightly
radioactive metal that's denser than lead and burns at very high
temperatures. It is used in bullets and artillery pieces. Upon
impact, it burns and vaporizes. Particles from the smoke are very
tiny and can be breathed in and become embedded in lung tissue.
"My daughter told me that as they rolled into Baghdad from
Kuwait, right after the end of the big bombing, in mid-April, there
were Iraqi tanks on the sides of the roads, that still had the dead
Iraqi soldiers in them," wrote another MFSO member. "She asked why
the tanks were not cleared off or the bodies taken out, and she was
told that no one wanted the duty because the tanks had been hit with
"She said they all assumed the dust in the road was full of DU
dust, and she said she felt she would now be at an increased risk of
cancer, as did all of her unit. She was manning the 50-caliber on top
of the truck, and said she breathed in the dust for many miles."
Only one e-mail out of more than one dozen received from MFSO
families said their spouse or relative had received the pre- and post-
deployment exams and shots.
In conclusion, the GAO said the Pentagon was poised to repeat
the mistakes of the first Gulf War, where it did not promptly or
adequately address the illnesses among veterans that became known as
Gulf War Syndrome.
"Failure to complete post-deployment health assessments may
risk a delay in obtaining appropriate medical follow-up attention for
a health problem or concern that may have arisen during or following
the deployment," the GAO said. "Similarly, incomplete and inaccurate
medical records and deployment databases would likely hinder DOD's
ability to investigate the causes of any future health problems that
may arise coincident with deployments."
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