Defense officials are determined to protect U.S. forces that brought down Saddam Hussein from becoming victims of Gulf War Syndrome II.

Thousands of veterans from 1991, the war that drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait, later became ill, suffering a range of symptoms, from nerve disorders to memory loss, that health officials finally labeled Gulf War Syndrome.

Because of poor record keeping, when health officials finally noticed a pattern of illness, researchers had difficulty determining the likely source of so many disabling conditions. Suspected causes varied from vaccinations and overuse of pesticides to exposure to oil well fires and depleted uranium tank rounds. The mental strain of months in a harsh environment awaiting orders to go to war was another potential factor.

Veterans of Gulf War II won’t face the same uncertainties, said Dr. William Winkenwerder, Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, thanks to a “postdeployment health evaluation process” ordered under a departmentwide policy memo signed in mid-April.

The goal is to health screen every one of several hundred thousand active duty, reserve and National Guard members who deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The health screen won’t mean a complete physical but a three-part evaluation.

One part is to have members complete a questionnaire on potential long-term health factors including exposure to environmental hazards, vaccines, pesticides, physical challenges and mental anxieties of being in a war zone. Every member who deployed to the war, Winkenwerder said, will be “fully asked about his or her mental health.”

Part two will be meeting with a “licensed medical provider.” That could be a physician but more likely a medic, corpsman or nurse. The idea is to ensure “they are not just completing a self-assessment survey,” said Winkenwerder.

The third part is collection of a blood dot which would be available to researchers if veterans begin to show symptoms of illness with no obvious cause.

The reason for theaterwide health evaluations, said Winkenwerder, “is to do right by our servicemembers … They exposed themselves to great risk and harm … We owe it to them to ensure they have a comprehensive health assessment before they resume their usual sorts of duties.”

Some screening will occur in theater, some in transit or at demobilization sites and some at the members’ home bases.

“This is going to take a considerable amount of work for all the services to implement,” Winkenwerder said.

SARS unconfirmed

A recent report from Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, that its clinic saw the first U.S. military case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was “very premature and perhaps inaccurate,” said Dr. David N. Tornberg, deputy assistant defense secretary for clinical and program policy.

The patient, a military retiree, had traveled to an unidentified country in Asia and fallen ill. The retiree was bedridden in a hotel and only returned to the United States after symptoms had passed, said Tornberg.

A sample of nasal washings, collected at the Hill AFB clinic April 16, tested positive for SARS but a throat swab and blood serum did not. The retiree appears fully recovered. No symptoms of the virus have been reported among family, friends, associates or Hill medical staff.

Tornberg called it a “suspect case” of SARS that can’t be confirmed unless the retiree allows more testing. It couldn’t be verified that the retiree has declined a follow-up test, but none was scheduled nor under way.

CRSC update

Under regulations to be published this month on eligibility for the new Combat-Related Special Compensation (CRSC), officials are to “look favorably” on applications from retirees whose disability ratings of 60 percent or higher are tied to exposure to Agent Orange, combat-linked Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Gulf War Syndrome, policy officials said.

Because this approach to CRSC looks beyond retirees with combat and combat-training injuries to those suffering from more controversial illnesses for which the Department of Veterans Affairs grants disability awards, CRSC recipients are expected to exceed initial estimates of 35,000, officials said.

By law, CRSC will take effect June 1 and be payable July 1. Few retirees, however, are expected to have applications filled out, mailed, reviewed and approved in time to see July payments. When CRSC does begin, payments will be retroactive to June 1.

CRSC is a compromise. It targets only a fraction of retirees with service-connected disabilities who have pressed for years to lift the ban on “concurrent receipt” of both full military retirement and VA disability compensation.

Retired pay now is offset by any amount that retirees draw in VA disability compensation. Under CRSC, the offset will remain. But retirees with disabilities tied to their Purple Heart or with combat or combat-training injuries rated 60 percent disabling or higher will receive compensation to replace lost retired pay.

For many, the additional dollars will wipe out the offset, with a few hundred to a few thousand dollars a month.

Thousands of retirees with 20 or more years’ active service are understandably anxious to file CRSC applications. But they won’t be available at least until mid-May, officials said.

Retirees with computers will be able to fill out forms at: Because “https” means a more secure, complex format, an upgrade in Web browser, which takes few minutes online, might be necessary to gain access.

At least one service, the Army, plans to send applications to all its retirees via the monthly retiree newsletter. It was unclear whether other branches would do so. Applications also should be available soon at retiree services on base. CRSC applications will be three to four pages.

— Comments and suggestions are welcomed. Write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111 or send e-mail to:

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