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Wednesday, October 4, 2000

Privacy issues bar
mandatory exams for
Gulf War illness,
soldiers told

By Gregg K. Kakesako

Nearly 75,000 soldiers who served in the Gulf War still remain on active duty today, and some of them believe the military should be required to conduct mandatory physical examinations to determine what may ail them.

But military officials, like Marine Lt. Col. Robert Dozier, a member of the special Pentagon Gulf War illness team, believe there are "privacy" and other issues, such as the fear of recriminations, that prevent such an undertaking.

Dozier and Sgt. 1st Class Albert Garcia addressed an audience of 100 soldiers and former soldiers at Schofield Barracks yesterday as part of a four-day briefing open to all of Hawaii's active-duty members and their families. Their last major effort will be a two-hour town hall meeting at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Fort Shafter's Richardson Theater.

At Schofield, soldiers repeatedly asked why active-duty personnel who served in the 1990-91 conflict were not required to take a physical examination.

Army Maj. Frederick Brown, who was a company commander during the Gulf War with the 24th Infantry Division, said "every year you are losing people. ... The (physical) tests should be mandatory to make sure the system works."

"There are laws in place that prevent you doing them," Garcia responded.

"That's the way the system is designed. ... We can't do anything about it."

Other soldiers expressed frustration with their initial Gulf War examinations, saying they were never able to get a copy of their test results or an explanation of what was found.

After the 90-minute briefing, Dozier said that besides the medical privacy issue, "there are other soldiers who are concerned about their careers." The soldiers fear that an adverse report from mandatory testing could result in the termination of their military career, he added.

Dozier noted that Gulf War illness symptoms in some cases do not appear for years, so one mandatory physical examination may not catch it.

Garcia told Schofield soldiers yesterday that there may be as many as 60 symptoms, with the eight most common ones being joint pain, headaches, sleep disorder, depression, fatigue, memory loss, rash and muscle pain. But the military has not determined what is making soldiers sick.

Of the 697,000 troops deployed to the Persian Gulf between August 1990 and July 1991, 20 percent have an undiagnosed medical illness.

Garcia said there is no limit to the number of comprehensive exams a soldier can request.

One staff sergeant said that when he took the exam in 1996 at Tripler Army Medical Center, he "felt like I was being rushed through it."

However, another sergeant said he went to Tripler recently and was impressed by its staff, describing it as "a very positive experience."

Dozier acknowledged that in the beginning the concerns of Gulf War victims were not well addressed. "That's all changed. We want them to come and get looked at."

Owen Roberts, who served in the Gulf War with Brown, told the Pentagon team, "There are lot of walking wounded out there who refuse to go for help for fear that it would jeopardize their career."

"These folks feel no one will assist them," said Roberts, who retired in 1994 after serving for 20 years in the Air Force and the Army and who suffers from Gulf War illness. "I can't eat fresh fruit. It makes me violently sick. That was never the case before. I even get ill now eating some vegetables."

Brown added that he was shocked that his brother, who served with him in the Gulf War, died two years ago. "It was a shock to lose my brother at age 45. ... We need to get the message out there."

For help, information

Some places to seek help:

Bullet 1-800-769-9699: For Gulf War veterans on active duty with health concerns.
Bullet 1-800-497-6261: Hot line to report Gulf War incidents.
Bullet 1-800-749-8387: For Gulf War veterans seeking VA benefits.
Bullet Web link to Gulf War illness information.

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