Sick Gulf war veterans in US to get disability payments

BMJ 1994; 308 doi: (Published 18 June 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;308:1589
  1. J Roberts

    The US government says that it plans to pay former soldiers who say that they suffered illnesses as a result of their service in the Gulf war, thus ignoring the lack of medical evidence.

    Veterans Affairs secretary Jesse Brown, himself a disabled veteran of the Vietnam war, last week asked Congress for authority to provide disability payments for three years to sufferers of what has become called the “Gulf war syndrome”: fatigue, arthralgia, respiratory problems, memory loss, and speech and motor incoordination.

    The decision to pay the veterans comes despite reports from several medical experts that the evidence for the syndrome is insufficient. But groups such as the Disabled American Veterans say that their complaints have been treated in much the same way as the early complaints of symptoms from Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the US during the Vietnam war. It took more than 10 years for evidence to accumulate that resulted in disability payments being paid.

    Secretary Brown said that he could not explain why more than 20 000 former soldiers have claimed illnesses related to the Gulf war but that “the Persian Gulf was a dirty war - environmentally speaking.” And even though an independent panel of experts organised by the National Institutes of Health last April said that the syndrome could have been caused by stress, chemical pollution, or parasites, he said that the Clinton administration has not ruled out biological or chemical weapons as a source of the ailments. The Czechoslovakian military has claimed evidence that the Iraqis used chemical weapons during the war, but the British defence ministry has rejected those allegations (11 June, p 1574).

    Brown estimated that payments to ailing veterans would average about $166 (pounds sterling 110) a month, which is the current payment for veterans who are 20% disabled. He is asking for Congress to support a payment programme for three years or longer to give medical experts time to define the syndrome.

    Whether Congress actually needs to act is uncertain, but Brown said that veterans could start to be paid within 120 days of approval.