- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 1, 2003

The Department of Defense will begin taking blood samples from U.S. soldiers within 30 days of their return from deployment to any war zone, after months of criticism that it has not fully complied with a health-protection law.
William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said in an interview yesterday that the tests enhance the government's system for tracking the health of soldiers on active duty.
Blood samples will be sent to the Defense Department's serum repository and will be available for study to determine whether soldiers develop long-term health effects similar to those that occurred after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
"Our service members would be better served by our taking the steps that we have announced," Mr. Winkenwerder said after Tuesday's announcement of his decision. "It is imperative that we get as complete a picture of the service members' health upon their return from a deployment as possible."
Some troops already have left Iraq, and many more are preparing to depart.
The decision to draw blood from returning military personnel also comes on the heels of increasing criticism from members of Congress and veterans groups about whether the Pentagon is doing enough to track soldiers' health.
Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican and chairman of the House Government Reform national security, veterans' affairs and international relations subcommittee, told Defense officials in March that they were not complying with Public Law 105-85, which requires the military to collect health data on troops before and after deployment to war zones.
Collection of blood samples was one of the most contentious issues, with Defense officials arguing that they were in compliance by collecting blood within one year of deployment and issuing a questionnaire immediately after.
Some veterans groups have said the illness known as Gulf war syndrome, which affects one-seventh of U.S. veterans of the 1991 war, could be related to stress, the vaccinations service members receive, and exposure to chemicals such as sarin or to radioactive materials such as depleted uranium.
However, the causes are not known because "there was no data collected. If there was, we would have been able to rule in and rule out why soldiers were getting ill," said Steve Robinson, a Gulf war veteran and executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center.
One Rhode Island study proposal to draw blood from reservists was backed by Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, and Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat. Mr. Reed sent a letter to Mr. Winkenwerder in January requesting an expedited $1.5 million from a $50 million Pentagon discretionary fund he controlled.
Gov. Donald L. Carcieri of Rhode Island also sent a letter April 21 to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, requesting money.
But last week, Mr. Winkenwerder refused, saying, "It's not possible to immediately allocate $1.5 million. We don't have any prejudice. We wouldn't fund any proposal unless it was approved by the usual process."
That application process takes several months, and the opportunity to draw blood immediately before deployment to the Middle East has been all but lost. In response, Mr. Kerry requested in March that the General Accounting Office begin an investigation into Pentagon actions. The report is due in the summer.
Critics called the Pentagon announcement, while long overdue, a move in the right direction.
"This is a positive step. The 30-day serum sample will provide solid clinical and epidemiological information about the health of deployed forces. DoD appears to be listening to Congress," Mr. Shays said in a statement.
But Mr. Shays said that there are still serious concerns about whether the Pentagon's tracking of veterans' health is adequate.
"Without reliable baseline data, a sick veteran of this war may face the same doubts and resistance as his or her Desert Storm compatriots that postwar illnesses were in fact caused by wartime exposures," he said.

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