Years After War, the Battle for Benefits Continues
Roughly 200,000 Gulf War Veterans suffer from debilitating diseases associated with Gulf War Illness. Jim Bunker, president of the Gulf War Resources Center, tells host Jeff Young that the federal government has denied many vets the benefits and treatment they need. But now, the Veterans Affairs Department has announced that they will re-examine benefits claims that have been denied.
YOUNG: Some 700 thousand U.S. veterans served in the Gulf War in 1990 and ‘91. Of them, some 200,000 have reported a variety of symptoms commonly called Gulf War Illness. Veterans Affairs secretary Eric Shinseki recently announced that the VA will reexamine disability claims for thousands for Gulf War vets who were denied benefits.
Jim Bunker says it’s about time. Bunker’s president of the Gulf War Resources Center. His 14 years of Army service ended with a medical discharge after his tour in the Gulf.
BUNKER: I served in the Gulf War from January first of 1991 to May fourth of 1991. About mid-March I became extremely ill. I stared having muscle twitches and started losing control of some of my body functions, and had a hard time breathing and everything, and they evac-ed me out of there back to the States shortly after that. And ever since then I’ve had neurological problems, you know, tingling in my arms, my legs, and that. When I was discharged out of the service I was on two crutches because I couldn’t walk that well. And I had a lot of cognitive dysfunctions; it’s like the whole world’s going 150 miles an hour past you, and you can’t catch up.
YOUNG: I’m guessing this has affected your ability to work, as well?
BUNKER: Yes, I’m considered 100 percent disabled by the VA. Because of this I was medically retired out of the service.
YOUNG: Well, tell me about your experience once you were back and after you received your medical discharge. What was it like trying to get the VA to pay attention?
BUNKER: It was hard. It was really hard. I’d filed a claim for neurological problems – my hands, which was denied all the time and my legs also because they couldn’t find anything wrong with them. I started seeing a psychiatrist and I would be bringing her the different researches and she kept saying, no, it’s not that, and then give me more anti-depressants, and it’d just drive me nuts.
And finally, one day when the big report came out and then she just goes, Mr. Bunker, we just have to agree to disagree because I don’t care what you’re going to say about the scientific data, it’s only in your head. And I left her office and went up to the patient rep and got a whole different person.
YOUNG: So what do you think is causing these symptoms that are now known as Gulf War Illness?
BUNKER: The research advisories committee in 2008 came up with the causes: the nerve agents that we were exposed to in the Gulf, the pre-treatment that we had for nerve agents, which is called pyridostigmine bromide or PB pills. And then the pesticides that we were exposed to. There’s been a lot of studies showing that these ailments are affecting lab rats the same way they affect us, and also long-term studies with these chemicals in farmers who use pesticides have been starting to have – have been shown they have some of the same symptoms after a long-term exposures.
YOUNG: Why do you think so little has been done to this point to get that basic of a correction diagnosis for these Gulf War veterans?
BUNKER: Well, one of the main things the VA has held for years was that it was only stress and nothing but stress. And until Dr. Steele’s study released in 2000 showed that it wasn’t stress, but it determined that also veterans who were sick was based upon where and when they served in the Gulf War as to how sick they were. Wasn’t then until everybody started saying there might be something here.
YOUNG: How much of this rests in a sort of bias that wounds that aren’t immediately obvious, that aren’t physical, aren’t real somehow?
BUNKER: A lot of it. Almost all of it. You know, people say that if you can’t see it – a wound – if it’s not cause by a bullet, or you’re not burned or anything like that, then you’re really not hurtin’. Just grab your bootstraps, pull them up hard, and keep going. I’ve had my own family members tell me that. You know, my brothers, my sisters and them. And that gets really frustrating. They had the same philosophy, and probably slightly changed, but not too much for people with traumatic brain injuries.
There’s a lot of veterans put out the service from Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan because of traumatic brain injuries where they’re not functioning right anymore and the DOD puts them out with what’s called a personality disorder. And the discredit to those veterans was the fact that keeps them from being able to get benefits at the VA unless they know the right regulation to file under.
YOUNG: How might this proposal by VA secretary Shinseki change things?
BUNKER: If it’s done right, hopefully it’ll reopen claims that were denied for reasons that they shouldn’t have been and be able to provide compensation to these veterans that they well deserve. It also should train doctors and nurses and caregivers that this is a real ailment, that there are something really wrong with these people and it’s not just psychiatric disorders or they’re not hypochondriacs or anything like that, they’re really sick and need to be treated.
And I’ll wait to see like other veterans – we’re all just skeptics because we’ve heard a lot of things over the last 20 years, and we’re going to hold off and see exactly how it unfolds.
YOUNG: James Bunker’s president of the National Gulf War Resources Center. Thank you, sir.
BUNKER: Thank you.
[MUSIC: Bombay Dub Orchestra “Egypt By Air” from 3 Cities (Six Degrees Records 2009)]
YOUNG: Coming up: A creative new use for bamboo gets some traction. That’s just ahead on Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living on Earth comes from The Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for coverage of population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway for coverage of environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI – Public Radio International.
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