WASHINGTON -- The Department of Veterans Affairs came under fire yesterday in Congress for its handling of Persian Gulf war-related illnesses, with lawmakers charging it has too often ignored gulf war veterans who say they were exposed to toxic chemicals.
At a hearing of a House subcommittee, chairman Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, castigated VA officials for not paying more attention to veterans' reports that military chemical-detection equipment often sounded alarms showing toxic agents in areas around U.S. troops.
Shays and Rep. Bernard Sanders, an independent from Vermont who is a senior member of the panel, appeared incensed that VA officials admitted they have yet to diagnose a single veteran as suffering from the effects of toxic chemicals, despite suspicions that some have been exposed.
"You didn't listen to the veterans," Shays told Drs. Susan H. Mather and Fran Murphy, two of the top officials in the VA's Persian Gulf war illness program who testified yesterday. "Nobody was listening to the veterans."
The two VA officials said the department essentially relied on the Pentagon to determine whether there had been evidence that U.S. troops were exposed to chemical weapons. The VA had no way of assessing possible exposure on its own, they said.
The exchange followed a hearing Tuesday in which two American military chemical-weapons specialists testified that their units had confirmed the detection of nerve agents near U.S. troops in Kuwait, despite claims to the contrary by the Pentagon.
The Defense Department has contended repeatedly that no U.S. chemical-detection units found credible evidence of toxic agents during the Persian Gulf war.
It argued that the alarms soldiers heard on U.S. detection equipment either could not be confirmed or were false.
Dr. Bernard Rostker, head of the Pentagon's new Persian Gulf war illness team, told reporters yesterday that although the two specialists' reports had been disputed by their superiors at the time, the department would investigate the issue again.
He said the chemical-detection equipment the two men described -- known officially as a Fox vehicle -- was designed to obtain ground samples and "is a very poor sensor" of nerve gas vapors in the air.
Also yesterday, Gen. Charles Krulak, commandant of the Marine Corps, issued a statement saying he believed "chemicals of various origins were present in the [gulf] region" during the war, but he declined to say whether he suspected there was widespread exposure.
The Marine Corps' own unit history of the gulf war "indicates that some units detected trace amounts of chemicals," Krulak said.
"What is key -- and what people need to know," he added, "is we are dedicated to providing the best possible medical care."
His statement marked one of the few such acknowledgments by military leaders, although aides cautioned later that Krulak did not mean to imply that he thought U.S. troops were subjected to widespread exposure to toxic chemicals.
Krulak issued his statement in response to an inquiry from the Los Angeles Times after Marine Corps Maj. Randy Hebert told the House subcommittee in testimony Tuesday that the commandant had told him in a private conversation last month that he believed chemical weapons were used.
Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, and retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, then the U.S. field commander in the Persian Gulf, both have said they knew of no instances in which U.S. troops were exposed to chemical weapons.
Pub Date: 12/11/96