More Gulf War cases may be coming

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Marshall County's veterans service director anticipates more requests for medical treatment next year because this year it was determined that about a quarter of the Persian Gulf War veterans suffer more from certain maladies than the general U.S. population.

"People have illnesses ... and it took 17 years for the Veterans Administration to say they are illnesses," Veterans Service Director Billy Hill said about a month after a Nov. 17 announcement of a determination by the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses.

Approximately one in every four of nearly 700,000 men and women who served in the first Gulf War suffer loss of memory, body aches, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and eczema, according to Internet-based reports read by Hill who says it's "because we had so much exposure to oil fires and the medication to protect against anthrax."

Previously, Gulf War Syndrome was dismissed as just something in the veteran's mind, or psychosomatic, but now, with the Nov. 17 report from the Research Advisory Committee, Hill anticipates his office will have more visitors from service men and women who served during the 1991 war led by President George H.W. Bush.

"I haven't seen any [Gulf War I veterans with diseases attributed to the syndrome] at this time, probably because people don't know about it," Hill said a couple of weeks ago.

His office continues to receive more visits from Vietnam War veterans, although there have been "a few veterans from Gulf War I," Hill said.

"I have one case that's heart wrenching," he continued. "He's a Vietnam War vet who also fought in Gulf War I. He's suffering from both wars.

"He's been diagnosed with lung cancer and we think it's because of the oil fires, and we think he's suffering from Agent Orange in Vietnam," Hill said.

Agent Orange was a defoliant used to clear forests of leaves so enemy soldiers could be seen. The defoliant's chemical components are substantially similar to DDT, another chemical that has been banned from general use.

One of the symptoms exhibited by the veteran, who Hill could not name because of privacy issues, is displayed when he is "stopping in he middle of a sentence and not remembering why he walked into a room."

Hill suspects he, too, suffers from such a condition and says, "Mine was attributed to age, but it could have been due to Gulf War I."

The determination about Gulf War Syndrome was issued about three weeks before Marshall County commissioners met for a budget work session and issued a request to all department directors to reduce their spending by about 10 percent.

"As far as the Veterans Affairs Office, that's going to be hard to do," according to Col. Larry McKnight, a county commissioner working for the Tennessee National Guard Association. "They've got to provide a service to get veterans to the VA (Veterans Administration Medical Center, or department offices.)

"We pay a minimal stipend to those who drive" a van to transport veterans to the York VA Medical Center in Murfreesboro and similar facilities in Nashville, McKnight said.

Some of those transportation and related services are provided on a volunteer basis and some of it is funded through donations, he said. Late this year nearly $700 were provided by children at Chapel Hill Elementary School.

Hill anticipates more requests for help, because of: the medical determination on Gulf War Syndrome; a reduction of hostilities in Iraq, and; the anticipated return of American troops from Iraq.

However, last summer, when the Marshall County Commission's Budget Committee was reviewing the various budget requests from department directors, the commissioners on the committee decided against recommending more money for the county veterans services office.

During a Budget Committee meeting in August, committeemen and women turned to Commissioner Jimmy Wolaver for his insight since he's a veteran and presumably familiar with the County Veteran's Office.

"It's like a farm," Wolaver repliedat that meeting in August. "If you go out there, you'll find plenty to do."

Still, he acknowledged economic difficulties last summer.

Commissioner Mickey King, now chairman of the Budget Committee, moved during that committee meeting last summer to refrain from raising the appropriation for the Veteran's Office.

The Budget Committee's recommendation was accepted when this year's county budget was adopted. It's half over now. The fiscal year ends on June 30, 2009.

"The request was for one [of the Veterans Service Office employees] to work for five days a week and the other was for three days, but that didn't happen," McKnight said last weekend, recalling the budget setting decision.

McKnight, however, put the decision in perspective by pointing to the previous year's deliberations and decision on resetting the veterans' office budget..

"Last year," he said of the budget that ended June 30 this year, "there was an increase for hourly pay to bring us n-line with other counties."

Even earlier, the Veteran Office services were provided by volunteer workers, including members of the Disabled American Veterans.

Now, Marshall County's Veterans Service Office employees, indeed all of America, recognizes there's to be a troop reduction in Iraq.

"They're anticipating more people coming back from deployments," Commission Chairwoman Mary Ann Neill said during that meeting in August when Wolaver replied, "Those coming back are going to their unit to get services, but there will be more because of the war in Iraq."

Hill offered a somewhat different view during an interview this month.

"Gulf War II veterans are coming through ... smarter in that they have received more information than we had when I got out of Gulf War I," Hill said. "We weren't as well-informed as these guys are today."

Every county in Tennessee has a Veterans Service Office. Some, like the office in Shelbyville, are open only two or three days a week, although there is a strong Veterans Council consisting of the commanders for each of the major veterans organizations: the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, the Order of the Purple Heart and other groups.

"The biggest change for this office," Hill said during an interview in his office at the Hardison Annex on College Street, is that we are open five days a week when we were only open three days a week.

"The change was in 2005," Hill said.

Another recent change for the Veterans Service Office is it's moved from cramped quarters in the Hardison Annex near the Election Office to far more spacious and renovated offices in another wing of the refurbished county school.

Increased services were anticipated about the time Hill started serving as the director after his predecessor resigned and the advent of Desert Shield, the precursor to Desert Storm, also known now as Gulf War I.

Substantiating Hill's anticipation of an increase in visits at the Veterans Service Office with soldiers returning from Gulf War II is Rick Roberts, the assistant director of the veterans office.

Still, his comment indicates support for Wolaver's point.

"They're savvy to what's going on where we were not when we got back," he said in a reference to his service period when the war in Vietnam was raging.

Other than his own suspicions about his condition, Hill says he's not been consulted by a veteran who suspects he or she has been afflicted with Gulf War Syndrome.

"I haven't seen any at this time, probably because people don't know about it," he said.