THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT AND THE FIRST LADY AND DR. JOYCE LASHOF ON RECEIVING THE PRESIDENTIAL ADVISORY COMMITTEE REPORT ON GULF WAR ILLNESSES
The Roosevelt Room
10:55 A.M. EST
MRS. CLINTON: Thank you, and please be seated and welcome to the White House. I am pleased to see all of you here today for the presentation of this report of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses. The work of this committee reflects the administration's commitment to finding answers for the thousands of brave men and women suffering from undiagnosed illnesses after serving in the Persian Gulf War. And it reflects the President's abiding commitment to being responsive to and responsible for our veterans and their families.
I know that there are numbers who are here of the commission, and I'd like them, if they would, to stand so that we could see all -- they're all standing. (Laughter.) We appreciate very much the time and effort that went into this service. And I know firsthand how important and difficult your task has been.
Over the last four years the President and I have received many heart-wrenching letters from Gulf War veterans and family members. Many veterans and their family members said they felt that their country had forgotten them. So in the fall of 1994, the President asked me to explore the issues surrounding the health needs of Gulf War veterans and to look into the federal government's efforts to address their concerns.
I met with officials from the Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration, and the Department of Health and Human Services to determine if we were doing the very best we could to respond to our veterans' needs and to facilitate research into their illnesses.
I met with representatives of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars who shared their own observations and told me of their efforts to bring more serious national attention to these illnesses. And I visited with individual veterans, active-duty soldiers and their families. At Walter Reed Hospital and the Veterans Hospital here in Washington, I listened to veterans as they tried to describe to me what it was like to live day after day, year after year, not knowing why they had become sick. I heard stories of hard-working men and women who could no longer keep steady jobs and support their families because of their illnesses. One veteran officer who had been diagnosed as one hundred percent disabled told me about the healthy and active life he had led before his tour in the Persian Gulf and about his frustration in seeking effective treatments for his systems.
In February 1995, I reported to the President and the Chief of Staff on these findings and recommended some steps the administration could take in the future, including the creation of a blue ribbon panel to investigate these issues further. And I had the privilege of testifying at the first meeting of this committee in August 1995, and I've been following the work that has been done closely ever since.
So I'm particularly gratified to be here today, and I'm also gratified that our government is making progress and being responsive in taking affirmative steps to do all that can be done on behalf of our veterans and on behalf of future members of our forces who might be put in harm's way in the future.
I want to thank all who served for their persistent efforts on this committee, and for considering thoroughly the diverse and strongly held opinions, theories, explanations, and evidence about these illnesses. But I particularly want to thank Gulf War veterans and their families for taking the time to share their experiences with this committee. We could not have had a better chair-person of this presidential committee than the one who was persuaded to undertake this significant responsibility, and it's my pleasure now to introduce Dr. Joyce Lashof, who will tell us more about the committee's findings.
DR. LASHOF: Thank you very much, Mrs. Clinton, especially for your compassion and your interest in this important issue. And thank you, Mr. President, for your very courageous leadership for wanting to get to the bottom of this issue and the effort you've made to bring this committee about.
Mr. President, Secretary Shalala, Secretary Brown, Deputy Secretary White, and Deputy Director Tenet: On behalf of the Advisory Committee it is a pleasure for me to transmit to you this, our final report.
Over the past 16 months we have conducted a broad analysis of issues related to health consequences of Gulf War service. Our efforts to address the complexities of Gulf War veterans' illnesses would not have been possible without the contributions of hundreds of Gulf War veterans and their families. They have served with distinction, and we thank them.
Our interim and final reports make several recommendations which we believe can improve the government's approach to addressing the health concerns of veterans who served in the Gulf. In all areas save one, these suggestions are to fine-tune the government's programs on Gulf health matters. Overall, the government has responded with a comprehensive series of measures to resolve questions about Gulf War veterans' illnesses.
Unfortunately, the positive nature of these efforts has been diminished by how the Department of Defense approached the possibility that U.S. troops had been exposed to chemical weapons. It is essential now to move swiftly to resolving Gulf War veterans' principal remaining concern -- how many U.S. troops were exposed to chemical warfare agents and to what degree.
The committee is pained by the atmosphere of government mistrust that now surrounds every aspect of Gulf War veterans illnesses because of these concerns. It is regrettable, but also understandable. Our investigation of DOD's efforts related to chemical and biological weapons led us to conclude the Department's early efforts were superficial and lacked credibility. DOD's failure to seriously investigate these issues also adversely affected decisions related to funding research on health effects of low-level exposure to chemical warfare agents. DOD was intransigent originally in refusing to fund such research until late this year. This has done a disservice to the veterans and the public.
But the committee recognizes that in November 1996, DOD announced it was expanding its investigation and research related to low-level chemical warfare agent exposure. We hope these initiatives can begin to restore confidence in DOD's investigation on chemical agent incidents.
But moving beyond the specific, albeit important, topic, it is important to reiterate that many veterans clearly are experiencing health difficulties connected to their service in the Gulf. First and foremost, it is vital that the government continue to provide the excellent clinical care for these veterans. Next, we must try to find why they are sick. Based on existing scientific data, none of the individual environmental Gulf War risk factors commonly suspected appears to be the cause. And while the government finds that stress is -- while the committee finds that stress is likely to be an important contributing factor to Gulf War veterans illnesses, the story is by no means complete.
Veterans, their physicians, and policymakers clearly stand to benefit greatly from the comprehensive range of ongoing research. We believe a continued commitment to long-term studies is important. Some health effects such as cancer would not be expected to appear until a decade or more after the end of the Gulf War.
Additionally, the committee recommends new research in three areas: the long-term health effects of low-level exposure to chemical warfare agents; the synergistic effect of pyridostigmine bromide with other Gulf War risk factors; and the most physical response to stress.
However, veterans and their families will realize maximum benefits from such research only through a thoughtful, inclusive dialogue between veterans and the Departments. In light of current public skepticism, the committee strongly believes that a sustained risk communication effort is the only way to repair public trust.
The volunteers who served in defense of our national interest deserve complete and accurate information about the risks they faced, and I am sure that we will be able to provide it to them.
The committee also felt there were lessons to be learned about health matters based on Gulf War experience. We believe the government can avoid many future post-conflict health concerns through better communication, better data, and better services, and we make recommendations in all these areas.
In closing, I would like to reemphasize that in many important and, in some places, unprecedented ways, the nation has begun to pay its debt to the 697,000 men and women who served in Operation Desert Shield-Desert Storm. We were impressed with the research the government had already initiated to understand the nature and causes of the illnesses so many veterans suffer from. The committee hopes the same degree of commitment will be applied to the issues still outstanding.
Finally, the committee gratefully acknowledges the significant time and effort that individuals within and outside government devoted to our effort. We also have been fortunate to have a talented and dedicated staff. On their behalf and on behalf of my fellow committee members, I thank you for your leadership in addressing Gulf War veterans' health concerns and for providing us with the unique opportunity to contribute to this vitally important issue. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much to Dr. Lashof and the members of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illnesses. Secretary White, Secretary Brown, Secretary Shalala, Deputy Director Tenet. I'd like to say a special word of thanks to Dr. Jack Gibbons for the work that he did on this. I thank Senator Rockefeller, Senator Specter, Congressman Lane Evans for their interest and their pursuit of this issue, and all the representatives from the military and veterans organizations who are here.
I am pleased to accept this report. I thank Dr. Lashof and the committee for their extremely thorough and dedicated work for 18 months now. I pledge to you and to all the veterans of this country, we will now match your efforts with our action.
Six years ago hundreds of thousands of Americans defended our vital interest in the Persian Gulf. They faced a dangerous enemy, harsh conditions, lengthy isolation from their families. And they went to victory for our country with lightening speed. When they came home, for reasons that we still don't fully understand, thousands of them became ill. They served their country with courage and skill and strength, and they must now know that they can rely upon us. And we must not, and will not, let them down.
Three years ago I asked the Secretaries of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs to form the Persian Gulf Veterans Coordinating Board to strengthen our efforts to care for our veterans and find the causes of their illnesses. I signed landmark legislation that pays disability benefits to Gulf War veterans with undiagnosed illnesses. DOD and VA established toll-free lines and medical evaluation programs.
I am especially grateful to the First Lady who took this matter to heart and first brought it to my attention quite a long while ago now. I thank her for reaching out to the veterans and for making sure that their voices would be heard.
To date, we have provided Gulf War veterans with more than 80,000 free medical exams. We've approved more than 26,000 disability claims. HHS, DOD and the Veterans Department have sponsored more than 70 research projects to identify the possible causes of the illnesses.
But early on, it became clear that answers were not emerging fast enough. Hillary and I shared the frustration and concerns of many veterans and their families. We realized the issues were so complex they demanded a more comprehensive effort. That is why, in May of 1995, I asked some of our nation's best doctors and scientists, as well as Gulf War veterans themselves, to form a presidential advisory committee that could provide an open and thorough and independent review of the government's response to veterans' health concerns and the causes of their ailments.
Since that time, we have made some real progress. The Department of Defense with the CIA launched a review of more than five million pages of Gulf War documents, declassifying some 23,000 pages of materials and putting them on the Internet. Through this effort, we discovered important information concerning the possible exposure of our troops to chemical agents in the wake of our destruction of an arms depot in southern Iraq.
The committee made clear, and the Defense Department agrees, that this new information demands a new approach, focusing on what happened not only during but after the war and what it could mean for our troops. Based on the committee's guidance, the Department of Defense has restructured and intensified its efforts, increasing tenfold its investigating teams, tracking down and talking to veterans who may have been exposed to chemical agents, and devoting millions of dollars to research on the possible effects of low-level chemical exposure.
I'm determined that this investigation will be comprehensive and credible. We haven't ended the suffering; we don't have all the answers; and I won't be satisfied until we have done everything humanly possible to find them.
That's why I welcome this committee's report and its suggestions on how to make our commitment even stronger. I also take seriously the concern regarding DOD's investigation of possible chemical exposure. I'm determined to act swiftly on these findings not only to help the veterans who are sick, but to apply the lessons of this experience to the future.
I've asked the Secretaries of Defense, Health and Human Service, and Veterans Affairs to report to me in 60 days with concrete, specific action plans for implementing these recommendations. And I am directing Secretary-designate Cohen, when confirmed by the Senate, to make this a top priority of the Defense Department.
I'm also announcing two other immediate initiatives. First, I've asked this committee to stay in business for nine more months to provide independent, expert oversight of DOD's efforts to investigate chemical exposure, and also to monitor the government-wide response to the broader recommendations. The committee's persistent public effort has helped to bring much new information to light and I have instructed them to fulfill their oversight role with the same intensity, resolve and vigor they have brought to their work so far. Dr. Lashof has agreed to continue and I trust the other committee members will as well.
Second, I'm accepting Secretary Brown's proposal to reconsider the regulation that Gulf War veterans with undiagnosed illnesses must prove their disabilities emerged within two years of their return in order to be eligible for benefits. Experience has shown that many disabled veterans have their claims denied because they fall outside the two-year time frame. I've asked Secretary Brown to report back to me in 60 days with a view toward extending that limit.
And we will do whatever we can and whatever it takes to research Gulf War illnesses as thoroughly as possible. Every credible possibility must be fully explored, including low-level chemical exposure and combat stress.
I know that Congress shares our deep concern, and let me again thank Senator Specter, Senator Rockefeller and Congressman Evans for being here. Caring for our veterans is not a partisan issue, it is a national obligation, and I thank them for the approach that they have taken.
As we continue to investigate Gulf War illnesses, let me again take this opportunity to urge the Congress to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention which would make it harder for rogue states to acquire chemical weapons in the future, and protect the soldiers of the United States and our allies in the future.
This report is not the end of the road, anymore than it is the beginning. We have a lot of hard work that's been done and we have made some progress, but the task is far from over. The committee's assessment gives me confidence that we are on the right track, but we have much yet to learn and much to do.
As we do make progress, we will make our findings public. We will be open in how we view Gulf War illnesses and all their possible causes -- open to the veterans whose care is in our hands; open to the public looking to us for answers. I pledge to our veterans and to every American, we will not stop until we have done all we can to care for our Gulf War veterans, to find out why they are sick, and to help to make them healthy again.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
Q Mr. President, this has been studied to death. Do you believe that there is a Gulf War illness?
THE PRESIDENT: I believe that there are a lot of veterans who got sick as a result of their service in the Gulf. And I believe it took experts to determine whether there is one or a deliberation of them in exactly what the cause and connection is. That has been apparent for sometime. That's why the Congress agreed to support our efforts that for the first time paid disability payments for people with undiagnosed conditions.
And -- but let me say that this -- I think that this committee has done a good job. I think -- I want to compliment the work that has been done in the last few months by John White of the Defense Department in facing up to the things which were not done before. No one has ever suggested that anybody intentionally imposed -- exposed American soldiers to these dangers, and there is nothing -- there is no reason that anyone in this government should ever do anything but just try to get to the truth and get it out and do what is right for the veterans.
And there are also -- I think we need to be a little humble about this. There are a lot of things that we still don't know. That's what Dr. Lashof said. And that's why these research projects are so very important.
And the final thing I'd like to say is we don't know all the answers here. You heard Dr. Lashof say that sometimes when people were exposed to substances that can cause cancer it may not be manifested for 10 years, which is why I want to thank Secretary Brown for urging that we stress the two-year rule. We have to -- we have to be vigilant about this. And my successor will be working on it. We will be monitoring this for a long time to come.
But we've got a process now the American people and the veterans and their families can have confidence in. We've got the appropriate commitment of personnel and money. And more important, we've got the appropriate commitment of the heart and mind. And I'm convinced now that we will do justice to this issue and to the people that have been affected by it.
Q Thank you, Mr. President.
END 11:05 A.M. EST