THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Americans who served in the Gulf War were nearly twice as likely to develop Lou Gehrig's disease as other military personnel, the government reported Monday. It was the first time officials acknowledged a scientific link between service in the Gulf and a specific disease.
The Department of Veterans Affairs said it would immediately offer disability and survivor benefits to veterans with the disease who served in the Persian Gulf during the conflict a decade ago.
``The hazards of the modern day battlefield are more than bullet wounds and saber cuts,'' said Anthony Principi, secretary of Veterans Affairs.
The research, which included nearly 2.5 million military personnel, is one of the largest epidemiological studies ever conducted and offers the most conclusive evidence to date linking Gulf War veterans to any disease. Still, researchers don't know why these veterans were more likely to get sick.
Veterans have long maintained that a variety of illnesses are associated with service in the Gulf, but scientific evidence has been scant and the Pentagon has resisted making the connection. Last year, the National Academy of Sciences was unable to link any of these complaints to a specific cause associated with military service.
``There was massive denial and obfuscation for years,'' said Tom Donnelly, whose son Michael, an Air Force fighter pilot in the Gulf War, is now paralyzed with Lou Gehrig's disease.
``I think there were people who decided, for whatever reason, this was something they didn't want to admit or cop to,'' said Donnelly, of South Windsor, Conn.
``They just didn't want it done so they put out the word that it wasn't real.''
The top health official at the Defense Department, Dr. Bill Winkenwerder Jr., said Monday that the conclusions are ``not the study results we'd like to report.'' He allowed that Pentagon officials have taken complaints about Gulf War illnesses less seriously in the past.
``There's been a maturation of thinking about health risks associated with deployed military service,'' said Winkenwerder, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
In October, a federally funded study suggested children of Gulf War veterans are two to three times as likely as those of other vets to have birth defects, but Defense officials questioned the research methodology and were skeptical of the results.
The results released Monday have not yet been reviewed by other scientists or published in an academic journal, and officials cautioned that they are preliminary. They said they were releasing them now to prevent further delay in compensating victims of the progressive, fatal disease.
``They need help now and we will offer them that help,'' Principi said.
To qualify for benefits after leaving the military, veterans must prove that their illnesses are related to military service. Principi said all those with ALS who served in the Gulf War will be automatically approved.
About 5,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with ALS, a fatal disease of the nervous system whereby muscles stop receiving signals to operate. Victims' bodies slowly shut down, losing their ability to move, to swallow and eventually to breath, though their minds remain alert.
``I used to say if anybody called central casting and said, `Send up a fighter pilot,' this is the guy they would send,'' Donnelly said of his 6'4'' son. ``Now he has wasted away to bones and skin.''
The study, funded by the Defense Department, compared nearly 700,000 military personnel who served in the Gulf War between August 1990 and July 1991 with another 1.8 million personnel who were not deployed to the region. It found that those who were deployed were nearly twice as likely to develop amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a fatal neurological disorder often called Lou Gehrig's disease.
Researchers worked with health associations, VA hospitals and veterans organizations and examined death certificates to find a total of 40 Gulf veterans with ALS. About half of them have already died.
A total of 67 cases were found among other military personnel.
Among Gulf War veterans, the rate of disease was 6.7 people per million. Among other military personnel, it was 3.5 per million.
The rate was not uniform among all personnel. Those who served in the Air Force were 2.7 times as likely to contract the disease, and those in the Army were twice as likely. Disease rates among Marine and Navy veterans were not statistically different from personnel not in the Gulf.
Principi said the VA would continue research on the connection between other illnesses and the Gulf War and increase research into ALS in search of a cause, treatment and cure.
Connections will soon be proven for other illnesses, predicted Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center.
``We've been proven right, and we're going to be proven right on a lot of other things as well,'' he said. ``This whole issue is about to blow wide open.''
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