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VA Suppressed Data on Gulf War Vets' Health Problems, Former Official Says

The Department of Veterans Affairs has suppressed evidence that Gulf War veterans’ health problems could be linked to their exposure to toxic substances during the 1991 war, a former VA epidemiologist alleges.

The department is supposed to take care of veterans, but in testimony to a House panel Wednesday, the medical researcher said it also did them other grave disservice.

In addition to withholding or manipulating data, former VA researcher Steven S. Coughlin said the department made little effort, if any, to help veterans in a VA survey who expressed suicidal notions.  Almost 2,000 of them reported that they would be better off dead, and only a small percentage of them received a follow-up call from a mental health clinician, Coughlin said.

Coughlin said he was ultimately able to get follow-up calls incorporated into a later survey – but only after going over the heads of supervisors who resisted the effort.  In retaliation, he alleged, he received a written admonition, which he successfully appealed.

Coughlin said he resigned in December “because of serious ethical concerns.” 

Coughlin’s testimony was the latest in a series of grievances leveled against the VA, including complaints that wounded veterans can be forced to wait hundreds of days to be approved for disability benefits.

Veterans of the Gulf War have long argued that a variety of debilitating medical symptoms can be traced to their wartime service, much as Vietnam War veterans before them struggled to establish that exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange caused health problems.

As a senior epidemiologist in the VA’s Office of Public Health, Coughlin said, he worked on research involving the Gulf War and later operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  That included data on Gulf War veterans’ exposure to pesticides, oil well fires, and pyridostigmine bromide tablets, which were used to protect against nerve agents, along with information on the medications the veterans have been taking.

“The Office of Public Health has not released these data, or even the fact that this important information on Gulf War veterans exists,” he said in written testimony.  “Anything that supports the position that Gulf War illness is a neurological condition is unlikely to ever be published.”

“On the rare occasions when embarrassing study results are released, data are manipulated to make them unintelligible,” he told the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. 

Coughlin said he was told “not to look at” certain data related to health problems experienced by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The data involved potential connections between respiratory ailments and exposure to burn pits and other inhalational hazards.
Coughlin said he has spent more than 25 years as an epidemiologist, including positions at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and as an associate professor at Tulane University.  He is now an adjunct professor at Emory University.

In a statement issued in response to his testimony Wednesday, the VA said it “agrees with Gulf War Veterans that there are health issues associated with service in the Gulf War.”

Appearing before the committee, a senior VA official offered further validation for veterans’ claims.

“Gulf War illness is not a psychologic condition,” Victoria J. Davey said.

Asked about the unpublished research, Davey said that when researchers collect a lot of data they prioritize the issues to be analyzed.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki has directed the Office of Research Oversight to review the allegations and report its findings, the VA said.

“Any retaliation against VA employees is against the law and is not tolerated by the Department,” the statement said, adding that the VA “is precluded by the Privacy Act from discussing personnel matters concerning individual employees.”

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), chairman of the subcommittee, criticized the department. “I want to say that as a, as a Gulf War veteran, I find the conduct of the Veterans Administration embarrassing on this issue in terms of their treatment of veterans.”

If Coughlin’s allegations are true, a leading veterans’ advocate said in a statement to the Project On Government Oversight, the VA’s conduct “would be a total breach of trust with all veterans and their families.”

Not only that, said Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, but also “more reason to doubt our country’s commitment to taking care of our men and women in uniform.”

By: David S. Hilzenrath
Editor-in-Chief, POGO

default thumbnail David Hilzenrath is Editor-in-Chief for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Public Health and Science

Related Content: Veterans Affairs, Miscellaneous, Integrity in Science

Authors: David S. Hilzenrath

Submitted by Bubble Gum Fran at: August 16, 2014
My husband served in the gulf war,Nicaragua,Kuwait.He has sleep apnea,problems with his heart due to his yearly visits to intensive care for pneumonia he has been int-abated once his knees both need to be replaced but they say he is to young hand him pills he has been working on his disability for years and for some reason he wins one case and never moves past 90% I also watch him take more pills than a 80 year old. He spent 28 days in the burning oil fields that couldnt be good they finally did a lung wash last week after years of icu visits whats wrong with this picture.
Submitted by AgeR at: July 18, 2013
Truly this is unspeakable and disgusting. Many vets from these theaters of war are from a time when we (the American people) were more patriotic and most of us truly believed in, and loved this country. I would defend this country right here, right now if I were fit today. I participated in the first gulf war and it has taken a long time for a diagnosis for MS, RA, diabetes, sleep apnea, irregular heart beats, and dreadful allergies, nose is always running. I was constantly at a doctors office for the hives and other medical issues. The docs would treat me give meds and send me on my way. I take more medication today than most 80 year olds. So I know that these illnesses are real. Why would a doc check you for any of these illness unless they knew that you fit the criteria. It can take twenty years before you have a diagnosis for Ms and the VA says that you have up to seven years for to claim that it was service connected. Who does the research for the VA's important research. Are they smarter than a sixth grader?When I see the congressmen acting like a bunch of third graders in the lunch room, insulting, an American President, I am appalled. This country is we in trouble, and we have lost our integrity. One for all and all for one. No matter what any of the other presidents have done, we do not disrespect our commander and chief. If congress and any others who can't give him the same respect shown to the other presidents and serve this country with honor, than congress should relinquish there position should keep there mess to themselves. As I see it if you all cannot conduct yourselves as Americans for Americans with honor and mature distinction. My point is if we can act with dishonor and disrespect and broadcast these shenanigans to the in tire world. Why would the VA be honest about what we (the vets)are really suffering from. If we can read all of the data that has been recorded in Kuwait since the war, there data shows that there is an increase in cases of MS and many of the civilians present with the same types of symptoms as our vets. What is problem with all of those educated people. So for the VA to deny the truth about the gulf war vets and provide care and give them the compensation needed to care for them and the families because they were there when you called them, now it is your (congress and the VA's) turn to do what is right for the American Military vets that valiantly served when they were called. I believe in this country, and I have learned what the American flag means. She really is Old Glory. We need to put the pledge of allegiance back in the schools and the VA needs to do the same when the report to work. Because we have to take our country back. we have a lot of growing pains but the should behave lost not only our dignity and trust in our state leaders and the congress children we have a real disconnect.
Submitted by Anonymouse at: March 17, 2013
A Veteran of the Central American/Iran-Contra era expressed concern to me about some cancer-causing toxics used near the Nicarauguan-Honduran border...and DoD record-keeping..
Submitted by hbro at: March 17, 2013
As a WWII vet and father of 3 veterans, one of whom died from Agent Orange while the VA ignored it, I know two rules. They love you when you go off to war and ignore you when you come back. Generals sit behind desks and collect fruit salad for their uniforms when soldiers are in fire fights.
Submitted by Paula Parker at: March 16, 2013
This sort of thing makes me ashamed of our country. Truly ashamed that we subject our promising young men and women to horror and physical abuse of an everlasting nature.

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