Witness: 'Cabal' at VA Is Killing Veterans

Despite the recently announced intention by Secretary Eric Shinseki and his Chief of Staff, John Gingrich, to change the “culture” of VA, the agency is in the grips of a rogue bureaucracy that bypasses congressional oversight and sabotages veterans interests and health. This was the claim made by several speakers at last Tuesday's hearing of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations  to consider Gulf War illness and "Dissatisfied Veterans." Some 250,000 veterans of Desert Storm are disabled from the a multi-symptom, multi-system sickness associated with exposure to toxins during deployment. service. According to Paul Sullivan, Executive Director of the veterans advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense, “a cabal of VA staff” is “intentionally delaying research and treatment for our veterans.”

Anthony Hardie, another Gulf War veteran and advocate, testified that VA bureaucrats “simply disregard the oversight ...created specifically” by Congress to bypass the entrenched bureaucracy in VA and the Department of Defense, which are “at the root” of many of the problems facing Gulf War veterans. While Hardie said that bureaucratic end-runs of both congress and agency programs might be be a matter of old-timers resisting new ways, he did not rule out less benign explanations including officials “having their own agenda.” and undermining reform because of “wanting this Administration to fail.”

As a member of the Congressionally-mandated Research Advisory Committee (RAC), Hardie said he was surprised and disappointed by recent VA actions taken without appropriate consultation with RAC and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee charged with Gulf War research advisement. Last week, Hardie learned only from a press release published on a veterans advocacy site that VA would be funding specific research programs. The projects, budgeted for a meager $2.8 million, pursued discredited approaches to Gulf War illness, promoting psychological causes and psychological remedies, even as both RAC and IOM have reported that VA and DOD's long-held stress theory of GWI is unfounded and that compelling data link the disease to toxic exposure. Moreover, Hardie said, the VA press release promulgated misinformation, claiming that "almost a quarter" of GW veterans suffer from Gulf War illness, when the IOM committee that works at their direction, has clearly stated that 35.9% or over a third of Gulf War veterans suffer from the multisymptom, multisystem disease. Meanwhile, Hardie and most veteran panelists decried the fact that the most substantial and productive research in Gulf War illness, conducted by epidemiologist  Dr. Robert Haley at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, was suddenly and summarily de-funded last August. As early as 1994, in research the government would not fund and that Ross Perot stepped in to support, Haley had demonstrated through scans the distinct brain malformations in Gulf War illness sufferers consistent with neurotoxic exposure—and not wartime stress, a theory that VA continues to entertain in its recently announced research projects..

Veterans and other stakeholders were excluded from the Task Force charged with reforming Gulf War research and treatment as part of VA's overall reform, panelists complained, and in committees in which they were included, they were ignored. According to Gulf War veteran and Desert Storm Battle Registy director, Kirt Love, the short-lived (2008-9) Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans on which he served was an “ole boys club” interested in pleasing the chairman, a former DoD and VA assistant secretary turned lobbyist/adviser to companies contracting with the government. 

Secrecy, concealment, dis- and mis-information, inadequate and inaccurate record-keeping and outreach, misguided and redundant research. These and more continue to plaque VA, the Subcommittee heard, leaving profoundly ill Gulf War veterans without appropriate treatment or benefits a full 20 years after their service.

Last November, after two decades of VA obstruction and obfuscation, VCS filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with VA to find out who “impeded” Gulf War illness research and the scale of their internal "sabotage."  Last month, having received no response, VCS filed a FOIA appeal to obtain particular documents that could disclose the perpetrators and the extent of their crime. 

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