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Combat stress from the Gulf War Belated government concern: Pentagon indifference hit by panel rejecting chemical link.

GULF WAR SYNDROME still defies definition as far as it applies to thousands of combat veterans with a myriad of physical and psychological complaints. But consider what it means for the Pentagon.

Dr. Joyce C. Lashof, chairman of a presidential investigating panel, has concluded that the Defense Department's early efforts to determine if these ailments were caused by chemical or biological weapons were "superficial and lacked credibility." The "atmosphere of government mistrust," she added, hampered funding for research and was "a disservice to the veterans and the public."

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Was there a deliberate cover-up? Dr. Lashof says no, evidently dismissing four years of military indifference to bureaucratic bumbling. Retired Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, top commander in the Gulf War, calls the allegation "ridiculous." But Sen. Arlen Specter, whose Veterans Affairs Committee is probing the matter, says "there is substantial evidence of a cover-up" and "we intend to get to the bottom of it." The Pennsylvania Republican can quote President Clinton's promise to do "everything humanly possible" to find the answers.

The origin of the syndrome is still disputed. A Texas study funded by Ross Perot says ailments reported by veterans could be the result of exposure to a multitude of chemicals in the war zone. But the Lashof commission says it can find "no causal link" between these ailments and exposure to toxic chemicals, pesticides, oil fire smoke or even medical prescriptions. It does confirm the presence of combat trauma -- something that has affected warriors throughout history, often in delayed reactions that can cause physical symptoms.

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Whatever the answer, it is reassuring that the highest levels of government are finally gripped with this problem after pretending so long that it did not exist. The Lashof commission has been given a nine-month extension to oversee Defense Department and Veterans Affairs Department examinations of available evidence. And Mr. Clinton is giving veterans more time to appeal for federal assistance.

This is the least this country can do for the 675,000 men and women who were sent to the Persian Gulf to turn back the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990. More than 20,000 have registered complaints -- triple the rate of those not exposed to battlefield contaminates -- and they deserve attention and respect.

Pub Date: 1/12/97


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