The problems for a former Marine in Twentynine Palms are being encountered all over the country as the Veteran’s Administration (VA) struggles to cope with what is called “Gulf War Illness.” The story of Sean Sanders, 44, is mirrored by many U.S Veterans who served in “Operation Desert Shield” and “Operation Desert Storm.”
On their website, the VA says “nearly 700,000 veterans served in the Gulf War from August 1990 to June 1991. A 2005 VA survey showed that Gulf War Veterans are three times more likely to have chronic multi-symptom illness (CMI) compared to non-deployed GW-era Veterans (37 percent versus 12 percent). CMI symptoms include fatigue, weakness, gastrointestinal problems, problems with concentration, sleep disturbances, headaches, skin rashes, respiratory conditions, and mood changes.”
At the heart of the problem is Gulf War Veterans are being denied care because the VA still does not know exactly what symptoms are service related.
For Sean Sanders, the symptoms have already cost him his business, house, and car. Sanders served in the U.S Marine Corps from 1988-1994, including a deployment to the Gulf area from November of 1990 through April of 1991. He retired on a medical discharge in 1994 because of problems with his knees.
Sanders started experiencing medical problems in 1991 which got more and more extreme, they progressively got worse and in 2011 he was diagnosed with gynecomastic and referred to an endocrinologist. The neuropathy became more painful and he was gaining weight without eating much. In January of 2014 he weighed 300 pounds. He applied for VA Assistance for his Gulf War symptoms two times, both times having the claim rejected. In June of 2014 he was at Hi-Desert Medical center in Joshua Tree when he collapsed; hospital staff suggested he take his case back to the VA and contact U.S. Representative Paul Cook, a retired Marine Colonel whose 8th Congressional District includes Twentynine Palms.
While the VA responded by denying him for a third time, extraordinary service from the office of the Congressman is getting him the help he needs. Merlene Steinbeck, a staffer for Cook, explained, “The VA is still determining what symptoms are actually related to service in the Gulf War. The VA is denying most claims of GWI until they have completed their study of the causes of the illness.”
Research from VA and others suggest symptoms may be associated with many factors, including a range of environmental and chemical hazards that carry potential health risks, but the exact cause or causes remain unknown.
While Sanders was unsuccessful with VA treatment, he will still get the specialized medical attention he needs so desperately. Steinbeck was able to get Sanders placed into a study the VA is currently conducting to determine the causes of the illness. The War Related Illness and Injury Study Center (WRIISC), operated by the VA in Palo Alto, is currently working with “Veterans with complex, chronic, difficult-to-diagnose illness or who need a detailed evaluation of exposures related to military service.”
Sean Sanders will be going to the WRIISC next month, and while there may not be a cure, thanks to Steinbeck’s tenacity and Cook’s office, he will get treatment. With the information from the study, the VA can tackle the challenge of how to provide treatment for many more Gulf War Veterans.