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Holding the Government Accountable

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.”

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.”