Outside editorial: Finding the truth to Gulf War illnesses

Posted: Friday, September 04, 2009

Just a few weeks ago, congressional influence and a large dose of common sense seemed to have saved UT Southwestern Medical Center's research efforts into why so many veterans of the 1990-91 Gulf War returned home with unexplained illnesses.

But despite the efforts of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, to resolve the dispute, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs last week pulled the research plug.

It's critical that this potentially ground-breaking research doesn't wilt on the bureaucratic vine. Unless a new arrangement is reached quickly, the VA's decision would dash the hopes of veterans seeking answers to their illnesses and could leave UT Southwestern holding the bag for millions of dollars in research for which it hasn't been paid.

The solution rests with the VA. In the same report in which it urged termination, the VA's inspector general noted that the project could have been funded with a federal grant instead of a contract. Moreover, it was noted that this change would have reduced bureaucratic red tape associated with federal contracts and averted the disputes that led to the contract's cancellation.

It is particularly ironic that it was the VA that originally pressed for a contract instead of a grant, which is the more common scientific research agreement.

This strikes us as a relatively simple change that would allow the research to move forward.

Research findings could change the lives and treatment options for thousands who bravely served their country and have lived for nearly two decades without answers. Reactions to nerve gas, other chemical weapons, pesticides, depleted uranium munitions or some combination are among the possible causes being investigated.

Too many avoidable squabbles have stalled the research since Hutchison earmarked the original $75 million in 2005 to fund the five-year research program. VA officials say the agency will continue its own research into the source of the illnesses and not abandon Gulf War veterans.

Perhaps, but given the ongoing battle between Vietnam veterans' organizations and the VA over the effects of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant used throughout that conflict, we think Gulf War vets deserve the sort of independent research that UT Southwestern can provide.

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