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U.S. troops off to Iraq aren't getting health screening, veterans groups say

WASHINGTON—U.S. troops heading for the Iraqi theater aren't getting the health screenings, especially blood sampling, mandated by a law that Congress enacted in 1997, according to veterans groups and their supporters.

The law, which grew out of concern over unexplained illnesses after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, requires that troops receive mental and medical examinations before and after deployment overseas. The tests are intended to provide clues in case the phenomenon known as Gulf War syndrome should recur.

The Pentagon is requiring only a one-page questionnaire asking for general health information. A top Pentagon health official says blood tests wouldn't be especially useful.

About 300,000 American personnel are at jumping-off points near Iraq or are on their way. Many authorities consider U.S. troops much more likely to face biological and chemical weapons in a new gulf war than in the one in 1991.

"The majority of the troops have already deployed ... and therefore we're not going to have a good picture of their health," said Steve Robinson, a Gulf War veteran and executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center. "Once again, if soldiers are exposed, we do not have baseline (medical) data required to document their status."

The Pentagon says it has followed the law.

"If the intent was to make sure we had better documentation—yes, we are in compliance," said Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, a Pentagon official who is deputy director of deployment health support.

The law was enacted in response to complaints from some Gulf War veterans, who reported a variety of ailments, including headaches, memory loss, rashes and loss of motor skills.

The causes were unknown, despite numerous studies. Some veterans pointed to the release of chemical or biological agents when Iraq's stockpiles were bombed, the military's hurried vaccinations against those agents, desert diseases and parasites, or pollution from burning oil wells.

The syndrome has caused bitter battles: between veterans and the Pentagon, which has refused to recognize it, and between veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has had to decide whether claims for medical compensation are valid.

Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Vietnam veteran and a former veterans affairs activist, called the Pentagon's program troubling.

"What's the message we're sending to our troops around the world today and those prepared to fight in Iraq?" he asked. "The message seems to be, `Do your duty to country, but your country won't fulfill its duty to you if you're lucky enough to return home.'"

Kerry, who is running for president in 2004, has asked the General Accounting Office to investigate whether the Defense Department has met its requirements.

In addition, leaders of the Senate Committee of Veterans Affairs have asked for a detailed account of the Pentagon's efforts to track medical data on battlefield troops.

Last month, Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi wrote to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and said the VA wanted to work closely with the Pentagon to collect "health and exposure data" on those deployed in southwest Asia.

"Much of the controversy over the health problems of the veterans who fought in the 1991 war with Iraq could have been avoided had more extensive surveillance data been collected," Principi wrote.

The law requires the secretary of defense to "establish a system to assess the medical condition of members of the armed forces," including reserves, deployed outside the United States for combat, peacekeeping missions or humanitarian operations.

Kilpatrick said the brief questionnaire was basically the military's response to the congressional mandate because it had other steps already in place.

In the questionnaire, troops are asked how they would rate their health, from excellent to poor. They also are asked whether they have any medical or dental problems, whether they have any health concerns and whether they have concerns about possible "exposures or events during this deployment."

Anyone answering "yes" to certain questions will be referred for further examination, Kilpatrick said.

A key element of the law is taking blood samples to establish a medical baseline and help identify possible subsequent exposures to toxic materials. The absence of such tests on veterans of the 1991 Gulf War has handicapped researchers.

Blood is always taken for HIV testing, Kilpatrick said, and those samples are in storage. Fresh samples will be taken only if the serum on file is more than a year old, he said. Critics charge that a nearly-year-old sample isn't fresh enough.

Kilpatrick disputed the idea that additional sampling, including blood taken after deployment ends, would be helpful, because the biological markers of many toxic agents disappear from the bloodstream within hours or days of exposure. But immunologist David Haines, who is affiliated with George Washington University, said that while many bio-markers were transitory, some persisted, such as mustard (blistering) agents and nerve agents such as sarin.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.