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Human Rights Leadership Profile

U.S. Congressman Christopher Shays: Fighting for Those Who Fought

he shortest and what appeared to be the least costly — in terms of American lives and suffering — war in U.S. history was over on February 27, 1991, when the ground assault against Saddam Hussein’s forces ended, just 100 hours after it had begun, in a resounding victory for the allied army.

      The official tally was 293 dead and 467 wounded, a total of 760 U.S. casualties.

      Over the ensuing years, however, some 100,000 Gulf War veterans of virtually all ranks and branches of service stepped forward with evidence of harm sustained as a result of their service.

      In most cases, these adverse effects were not discovered until long after they left the Persian Gulf. But when veterans described their symptoms — aches and pains, chronic and disabling fatigue, bleeding and hemorrhaging, blurred vision, diarrhea, memory loss, inability to concentrate, dizziness, blackouts, fever, rashes, nausea, and birth defects in offspring, among others — instead of receiving help from the Defense Department, they encountered a stone wall of denial.

      And so it was that for years, veterans suffered and died from the chemical and biological weapons to which they were exposed during the brief but intense Gulf War, neglected and all but forgotten by the nation they had served.3 According to one estimate, by June 1997, more than 4,200 Gulf War veterans had perished from various sicknesses. In case after case, those who were seriously physically ill were told their problems were “in their heads,” that they were suffering from “stress,” and that the treatment was psychiatric antidepressants and other drugs.

“Veterans Were Right on All Counts”

      In March 1996, after hearing veterans describe to him what they had encountered, Congressman Christopher Shays, chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight’s Subcommittee on Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations, began investigating the matter. According to the congressman, “Many veterans were telling us the federal response to their plight was blind and passive. They found the research unfocused, their diagnoses skewed toward stress, and their treatments inconsistent or ineffective. It became clear to us very quickly, our veterans were right on all counts.”

      A few months later, shortly before hearings planned by Shays in June 1996, the Pentagon announced that some 400 American soldiers were “presumed exposed” to chemical warfare agents after the Khamisiyah Ammunition Storage Depot in Iraq had been destroyed. As reported by columnist Jack Anderson, Defense Department officials may have released the information because they were worried that the information would leak out in advance of Congressman Shays’ hearings.

      The Pentagon’s admission came after five years of denials that American servicemen had been exposed to any sort of chemical or biological weapons. The numbers rose rapidly each month until by October 1996, the Pentagon stated that 20,800 were “presumed exposed” to the chemical weapons stored at Khamisayah. While a breakthrough of sorts, the Khamisiyah incident included only the soldiers in the vicinity of that one Iraqi depot when it was blown up by U.S. Army engineers and failed to account for the vast majority of sufferers who were nowhere near that site. Nor did exposure to chemical weapons explain the many reports that veterans’ adverse symptoms were being passed on to spouses and other family members and even household pets.

      Congressman Shays’ investigation continued, with frequent hearings held to spotlight the problem and to unearth new information. Among other things, the hearings explored the health effects of chemical weapons; mycoplasma, a type of contagious, harmful microorganism to which many veterans were reportedly exposed; vaccines and pills administered to troops; depleted uranium, a toxic substance used by American forces in bullets and artillery shells to pierce armor — as well as other elements in the toxic stew that comprised the Persian Gulf environment.

      After 11 sets of hearings over a 19-month period, with testimony from nearly 100 witnesses — including veterans, leading scientists and medical experts — the subcommittee issued its final report in late 1997. Among its findings was that “The presence of a variety of toxic agents in the Gulf War theater strongly suggests exposures have a role in causing, triggering or amplifying subsequent service-connected illnesses.”

      While treatment of sick Gulf War veterans by the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs has largely focused on “stress” and “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” the report noted, “there is no credible evidence that stress or PTSD causes the illnesses.”

      The subcommittee condemned actions on Gulf War issues by the Defense and Veterans Affairs Departments, along with the CIA and the Food and Drug Administration, as “plagued by arrogant incuriosity and a pervasive myopia that sees a lack of evidence as proof.” It censured the CIA for failing to release documents that would help to understand the nature of Gulf War Illness and denounced the Food and Drug Administration for facilitating the use of experimental drugs on soldiers — and for failing to ensure they were warned of possible dangers.

      The report also contained 18 detailed recommendations, including legislation to aid veterans, creation or designation of an agency independent of the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to oversee research into Gulf War Illness, and “an intensified effort to declassify Gulf War documents in any way related to Gulf War veterans’ illnesses.”

      Approved and adopted on October 31 by the full Government Reform and Oversight Committee, the report stated, “Sadly, when it comes to diagnosis, treatment and research for Gulf War veterans, we find the Federal Government too often has a tin ear, a cold heart and a closed mind.”

Unpaid Debt

      According to veterans and those concerned about their care, Shays and his subcommittee have been instrumental in advancing the cause of those affected by exposure to chemical or biological weapons, and undoubtedly contributed to President Clinton’s decision, announced on November 8, to appoint a new five-member panel to direct further investigation of Gulf War Illness, with former Senator Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) as chairman.

      When Senator Don Riegle retired in 1995, Gulf War Illness was essentially dropped as a priority by Congress, said Chris Kornkven, a Gulf War veteran and president of the National Gulf War Research Center. “It wasn’t until Congressman Shays began investigating this issue that there was any hope it would be resolved,” he said.

      After Michael Stacy, who served with the 2nd Armored Division as a loader on an Abrams M1A1 tank, returned home, he found, among other things, that he could no longer have normal sexual relations with his wife, a fact he attributes to being exposed to toxins during the Gulf War, including large quantities of depleted uranium. Like so many other veterans, government doctors told him his problems were all in his head, i.e., that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

      “It would be easier to convince you I had been abducted by aliens than to convince the VA I had a physical problem,” Stacy said. After years of encountering continual negation of his condition, he said, “The VA had me whipped.” When the invitation came to testify before Congressman Shays’ subcommittee, he accepted the opportunity. Being able to tell his story was itself therapeutic, he said: “I regained my pride and my dignity.”

      Jim Tuite, director of the Gulf War Research Foundation, believes Congressman Shays provided responsible leadership and views the hearings he chaired as “a very positive step forward,” one that established without question that Gulf War veterans were exposed to toxins. He predicts the hearings will lead to legislation that will benefit all affected Gulf veterans. “From there we can do the research and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Tuite said.

      In the words of Congressman Shays, “It is simply not acceptable for the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense to declare repeatedly ‘there is no evidence’ of exposure or effects, when the evidence has never been sought.”

      The key question, he said, is “Are sick Gulf War veterans getting better? Until the answer is yes, our work as a Congress and as a nation remains unfinished, our debt to veterans unpaid.”

A Record of Service

According to veterans, Shays’ work has been instrumental in moving forward the cause of those affected by exposure to chemical or biological weapons.
      While Gulf War Illness has been the focus of his recent attention, Christopher Shays’ record of service to others goes back three decades, when he and his wife, Betsi, worked from 1968 to 1970 in the Peace Corps as teachers in the Fiji Islands.

      In 1985, while in his sixth of seven terms as a Connecticut state representative, he went to jail to protest corruption in the judicial system, an act of courage recognized by fellow legislators and constituents. A Hartford Superior Court judge sentenced Shays to 10 days’ imprisonment for contempt of court after he refused to step down from the witness stand until being allowed to present testimony against an attorney in a disciplinary matter.

      Although intervention by the State Attorney General and another Superior Court judge secured his release on the third day, he was adamant about his position, affirming that he “would do nothing different” if placed again in the same circumstances. “I have to do what I have to do,” he said, condemning the state’s system for disciplining judges and attorneys as “a farce.”

      A U.S. congressman since 1987, the subcommittee he now chairs has oversight regarding the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor and Education. Among other issues, he has taken an important role in battling fraud and abuse in nursing homes and elsewhere under the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

      On November 21 and 22, 1988, he helped lead a 24-hour vigil in the Capitol Rotunda to honor the founder of the Peace Corps, John F. Kennedy. “President Kennedy may have passed away 25 years ago, but he is alive and well in the Peace Corps,” he said to the crowd. “It was not an accident that his picture hung on the walls of the simplest people in Third World dwellings.”

      And it is no accident that Christopher Shays is remembered in the hearts of veterans, wounded by an invisible enemy, who served in Desert Storm.

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