By MIKE BARBER P-I REPORTER
A special Veterans Affairs panel aiming to do justice for the long-neglected veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War convened in Seattle on Wednesday -- at the same time retired Gen. Eric Shinseki was testifying at a Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday to be the new VA secretary. While Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., spoke at Shinseki's hearing about the need to change the current culture of the VA, several veterans in Seattle told the 14-member Advisory Committee about problems they had after returning from Operation Desert Storm 18 years ago. Each veteran had fallen ill in the 1990s and never recovered from similar, mysterious symptoms they said they were discouraged from reporting or treating after returning from war: "I felt kicked out, humiliated ... I looked elsewhere for answers" and dropped all contact with the VA in 1996, said Mark Nieves, 38, of Seattle. He came home ill displaying a variety of mysterious symptoms after serving as a cavalry scout with the 1st Armored Division in the 1991 Iraq invasion. Lee Christopherson, 47, of Seattle, a former Coast Guard commander who also served in the Iraq war in 2003, was urged to attend the meeting by his mom, who said she wanted him to share what she had seen him bottle up over the years, including multiple strokes, blood clotting, vascular dementia, severe joint pain, fatigue, sweats, and involuntary muscle spasms all over his body. "I had significant medical issues but I avoided recording them due to the fear of repercussions to my career," said Christopherson, who has been waiting since 2004 for a decision on his disability claim. Beckie Wilson, a retired enlisted sailor and veteran of Desert Storm in 1991, said she gave up seeking VA treatment 10 years ago, opting for private doctors, in part from feeling vulnerable as a woman and made to feel "crazy." "I didn't feel like the VA is changing so why bother? Is it truly changing? Are you truly trying to do something for us?" she asked. Committee Chairman Charlie Cragin, a retired Navy captain and former acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, insists it is."What we are trying to do is find out what the VA is doing with regard to Gulf War veterans" regarding benefits and services and to report back to the VA secretary, Cragin said. Other committee members include a Gold Star wife, other Gulf War veterans, veterans service organization representatives and medical experts. The three veterans who addressed them were among a half-dozen from that war who turned out for the all-day hearing in the auditorium of the VA Puget Sound Health Care System medical center on Beacon Hill. The panel's two-day visit on Thursday will include trips to veterans outreach centers and homeless shelters that are mostly closed to the public eye to protect the privacy of veterans. All present agreed Wednesday that Gulf War veterans who were discouraged in the 1990s now need to be found and reassessed for help. "We need to get them in the door," said committee member Kirt Love, a Gulf War veteran who for years was often at odds with the VA over Gulf War issues.
P-I reporter Mike Barber can be reached at 206-448-8018 or email@example.com.
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