When tens of thousands of Gulf War veterans began reporting mysterious illnesses in 1991, dozens of grass-roots support groups spontaneously formed all across the United States, demanding healthcare and research into the illnesses. Servicemen and women who served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm demanded to know why we were ill, who would cover our health care costs, and who would provide benefits to those of us unable to work.
During the Gulf War, veterans serving in Southwest Asia were exposed to harmful levels of oil well fire pollution, chemical warfare agents, pesticides, radioactive and toxic depleted uranium from spent ammunition, and ordered to receive experimental vaccines and other drugs.
Tragically, the concerns of the growing number of ill Gulf War veterans fell on deaf ears at the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
In the U.S. and the United Kingdom, local groups of veterans joined together to compare stories about toxic exposures and unusual illnesses, and investigative reporters began writing news articles describing serious problems among tens of thousands of veterans.
The most poignant investigative article was published in LIFE magazine, and it featured both ill veterans and children of veterans with serious birth defects. In the most bizarre public relations disaster related to the Gulf War, DoD and VA responded to the article by claiming Gulf War illnesses was a creation of the press.
By March 1995, as the severity and scope of the illnesses became obvious to veterans, two dozen Gulf War grass-roots groups met in Dallas, Texas for the first “Unity Conference.” Veterans meeting in Dallas agreed to press the unresponsive DoD and VA for healthcare, research, and benefits.
What made the first Gulf War illness conference especially noteworthy was that many of the organizers had never met face-to-face. Working on a shoe-sting budget, the grass-roots groups set up the conference entirely by phone and e-mail.
Furthermore, at the end of the conference, the veterans agreed to form an umbrella organization representing the grass-roots groups in Washington, where most of the decisions adversely impacting Gulf War veterans were being made.
The same weekend as the conference, “60 Minutes” broke the story of widespread chemical exposures among Gulf War veterans, and President Bill Clinton formed the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses (PAC).
But the PAC was doomed to failure. PAC staff members investigating chemical exposures were fired, evidence of depleted uranium exposures ignored, and the final PAC report attempted to blame the illnesses on stress.
The PAC closed in 1997, after it was revealed how the PAC was controlled by VA and DoD and how the concerns of veterans were ignored. Several PAC members and staff went so far as to offer a dissenting statement.
Yet Gulf War veterans pressed on. By 1995, the NGWRC opened part-time volunteer office in Washington, DC inside the headquarters of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA).
Congress immediately recognized the NGWRC as the leading advocacy organization for Gulf War veterans, and the NGWRC has testified before Congress every year since 1996.
The NGWRC’s strong national role resulted in the enacting of several laws expanding healthcare, research, and benefits for ill Gulf War veterans.
In 1997, as an all-volunteer organization funded entirely by small contributions from Gulf War veterans and supporters, the NGWRC obtained non-profit status (donations to the NGWRC are tax deductible).
In 1997, in response to the PAC report, the DoD formed the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses (OSAGWI). In five years, OSAGWI has spent nearly $150 million without ever publishing one medical research report or offering a single treatment program for ill Gulf War veterans.
In 1997, during the widely publicized NGWRC conference in Atlanta, President Clinton announced the formation of the Presidential Special Oversight Board (PSOB).
Sadly, the PSOB was also doomed to failure because key staff reports describing DoD and VA investigations and research efforts were altered or misdirected, and the PSOB closed in 2000.
In 1998, the NGWRC raised enough donations to hire a full-time executive director at the VVA office in Washington, DC. With enormous grass-roots pressure, the NGWRC successfully pressed for the enactment of landmark research and healthcare benefits laws.
By 1999, as the NGWRC grew from 20 grass-roots groups to 60, the NGWRC began changing focus to become a membership organization and pressing for the proper implementation of the laws passed by Congress mandating healthcare and research, but ignored by DoD and VA.
In 2000, as a result of the laws supported by the NGWRC, the National Academy of Sciences published a report about Gulf War toxic exposures. The NAS laid the blame for the illnesses squarely on the DoD because of DoD’s failure to record toxic exposure doses during the Gulf War.
The intentional failure of DoD to collect data during the war prevents most scientists from conducting thorough research into why Gulf War veterans are ill and prevents them from suggesting treatment programs.
In 2001, after testifying several times about the need for research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), VA and DoD officially recognized a solid connection between Gulf War service and Gulf War illnesses.
Also in 2001, the NGWRC led the grass-roots efforts to extend the time period for veterans to obtain healthcare and benefits for undiagnosed illnesses until the year 2010.
The same law supported by NGWRC expanded the definition of undiagnosed illnesses to include chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome, illnesses suffered by thousands of Gulf War veterans. As a result, VA will be forced to re-evaluate tens of thousands of improperly denied claims for healthcare and benefits.
In 2002, the NGWRC led the national effort among veterans organizations in Washington by demanding that VA comply with the 1998 benefits law and form a Gulf War Research Advisory Panel reporting directly to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
The VA Secretary agreed with the NGWRC and formed the panel, a tremendous victory for veterans. NGWRC’s executive director was appointed by the Secretary to represent the interests of Gulf War veterans.In 2002, for the first time, the voice of veterans will be presented directly to the VA Secretary, and not filtered through the DoD, OSAGWI, or entrenched bureaucrats at VA unwilling and unable to respond to the needs of Gulf War veterans.
With the formation of the new Gulf War panel, the official recognition of Gulf War illnesses, and the re-evaluation of thousands of veterans’ benefits claims, 2002 is shaping up to be a year of tremendous opportunity for ill Gulf War veterans.
In 2004 NGWRC pressured the military to review use of the anti-malarial drug Lariam in Iraq due to its possible correlation with suicide rates. DOD discontinued use of the drug. In the same year, NGWRC helped congress draft “The Healthy Troops Act” which requires a doctor’s exam, disease screening, mental health assessment, and blood tests for returning soldiers.
In 2005, NGWRC created the Just One program in Colorado Springs, CO. This fulfills the need for mental health counseling for soldiers who do not wish to be stigmatized by their peers or commanders for seeking help.
In 2006, the NGWRC continued the Just One program, and lobbied for key research funding, and continued to focus public attention on VA health care shortages, high suicide rates among active duty forces, and other issues facing current troops and recent veterans deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
In June 2006, the NGWRC Board held its annual retreat, where it revised its mission to encompass all veterans and current active duty forces from 1990 to present.
The NGWRC then created a new membership organization affiliated with NGWRC, Veterans of Modern Warfare, Inc. (VMW), to take over the function of organizing members at the grass roots level to perform legislative advocacy.
The NGWRC now focuses on fulfilling the unmet needs of OIF, OEF, Desert Storm, and other veterans of the modern era (1990 to current). One of the unmet needs identified by members and other veterans currently working for US contractors in Kuwait, in support of OIF, is that neither they, nor the troops in Kuwait and Iraq, have access to independent case managers and benefit counselors who can assist them in navigating the morass of federal bureaucracies that determines when, and whether, they receive the benefit they have earned due to disability or injury in the line of duty.