After years of battling the Defense Department over Persian Gulf War illness, the nation’s largest veterans group said Wednesday it’s time to set aside the anger and look for answers together.
“We are not here to prop up the DOD (Department of Defense), but as American veterans we certainly want to see the DOD overcome the bad reputation it has earned over the past few years,” Matt Puglisi, assistant director of the American Legion, told the group’s annual leadership conference.
“The credibility of the U.S. military itself is at stake.”
Traveling in Germany, Defense Secretary William Cohen promised Wednesday to do all he could to solve the mystery of what happened to missing logs that tracked chemical weapons during the 1991 war. The records could prove soldiers may have been exposed to poisons.
“Obviously, it’s not been well handled,” said Cohen, adding there is “general disappointment with the level of record keeping that took place.”
Earlier this week, Cohen ordered the Pentagon’s inspector general to investigate the disappearance of more than three-quarters of those records kept by American commanders during the U.S.-led war against Iraq.
Several congressional committees also are conducting their own investigations. And President Clinton has extended the mandate of a presidential advisory panel on Gulf War illness.
“We will pursue all the leads that we can, and whatever bad news there is, we will dig through and make it public,” Cohen said. “I’m satisfied we will make an honest, thorough effort to get at the facts.”
Leaders of the American Legion, which represents 3 million veterans, including 45,000 from the Gulf War, said they, too, are satisfied the Defense Department is finally sincere about helping sick veterans.
In fact, the Pentagon and the American Legion are jointly planning town hall meetings nationwide to address questions, Puglisi announced. The first are scheduled April 21-25 in Cleveland, Kansas City, Dallas, Boston and Atlanta. Several more will be held in May in Western states.
“DOD denials over the past 5-1/2 years stoked fears” and created distrust among veterans and the public, Puglisi said. “We’re going to continue to press the DOD, but we feel they’re finally trying to get to the bottom of this. Now, we’re moving in the right direction.”
Puglisi noted that all branches of the U.S. military have reported difficulties recruiting because of the recent scandals over sexual harassment in the Army and the Gulf War illness debate. As a result, the Army plans to invite more recruits who don’t have high school diplomas.
“If I was a parent with an 18-year-old child, I wouldn’t want my child to go into the military right now,” Puglisi said. “And I’m a Gulf War veteran and a member of the American Legion. I believe in the military.
“I think we can help the DOD turn things around.”
Puglisi also praised Dr. Bernard Rostker, the Pentagon official who several months ago became the point man on the Gulf War issue and whose preliminary probe disclosed the extent of missing chemical logs.
As part of the fresh Pentagon team, “It’s no skin off his nose to uncover any dirt. And so far he has,” Puglisi said of Rostker.