Hawaii: Gulf War vets urged by Pentagon to seek medical help

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Posted on: Wednesday, October 4, 2000 Hawaii: Gulf War vets urged to seek medical help

By Mike Gordon

Advertiser Staff Writer

SCHOFIELD BARRACKS  The Pentagon has sent a team of experts to Hawaii to convince veterans and active-duty soldiers that help is available for Gulf War illness, but the faith factor may be a hard pill to swallow.

At a briefing yesterday at Schofield Barracks  one of 13 being held at Oahu military installations this week  retired Chief Warrant Officer Owen Roberts told the team that people are hesitant to seek help because they fear it could damage their careers.

"There are a lot of walking wounded still out there on active duty, soldiers who want to complete their careers," he said. "These folks feel there is no one who will assist them."

The Pentagon insists there is, and that was the prevailing message to the 50 soldiers who attended the Schofield briefing. Almost all are Gulf War veterans.

Although nearly a decade has passed since the Gulf War, U.S. veterans still suffer from illnesses they cannot completely explain. Fatigue, skin rashes, headaches and muscle and joint pain. Veterans have died and some remain 100 percent disabled.

Studies have failed to pinpoint a single cause for the so-called Gulf War Illness, despite complaints from 90,000 of the troops who served there.

Roberts said he came home with rashes and an allergic reaction to fresh fruit.

"I havent eaten fresh fruit since 1990," he said. "If I do, I get violently sick. I know its related."

Even in retirement, he said, he loves the military, "but the faith issue is there. A lot of folks have lost faith in how the government will handle them."

Outreach team member Sgt. 1st. Class Albert Garcia, who served in the Gulf War as a medic, said medical information is supposed to remain private and not get in the way of a soldiers promotions.

"Ultimately, you have to determine if your career will suffer," he said. "We all know how the system is supposed to work. I cant tell you or guarantee you that that is the way it will happen."

Initially, military officials ignored the health-related complaints of Gulf War veterans, Garcia told the audience. "There was a communication breakdown," he said. "They said it was all in their head. This was unfortunate."

Doctors also were dumbfounded by the fact that some veterans became ill right away and some became ill several years later, Garcia said.

The continuing complaints prompted the Department of Defense to form the outreach teams and to model a health evaluation program after one being used by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Garcia urged the soldiers to take advantage of the free evaluation, which is also open to family members.

Only 120,000 of the 697,000 troops sent to the Gulf have asked for the evaluation, he said.

Maj. Fredrick Brown told Garcia the evaluations should be mandatory.

"Every soldier should be tested," Brown said. "If you dont nip it in the bud, then you have this for years. Thats my recommendation. It should have been made mandatory up front."

Brown said later that he doesnt think that veterans will be penalized for talking about their illness. "If you give them positive feedback, that will eliminate the thought that the system isnt working," he said.

A Gulf War veteran, Brown said he doesnt suffer from ailments that have plagued so many soldiers. But his brother, also a Gulf War veteran, suffered from chronic joint pain. When he died two years ago at age 45, Brown wondered if there was a connection. It remains an unanswered question.

Staff Sgt. Joseph Stricklin had praise for the evaluation program. And he said he was glad he stepped forward.

"Im not saying there will be a positive experience for everyone, but mine was," Stricklin said. "I was anticipating a negative experience. And in the unit Im in, Ive received a lot of support."


-- Carl Jenkins (Somewherepress@aol.com), October 04, 2000

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