San Diego Union-Tribune

December 11, 2001

Survey links Lou Gehrig's disease, Gulf War service
  VA authorizes compensation


WASHINGTON -- Persian Gulf War veterans are twice as likely to
develop the rare but deadly Lou Gehrig's disease as those who did not serve in the Gulf War zone, according to a federal survey released yesterday.

Although the conclusions of the study are preliminary, Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi said he has authorized compensation for all Gulf War veterans who develop the incurable nerve-destroying disease and for their dependents or survivors.

The study compared the incidence of the fatal disease among 700,000 veterans who served in the Persian Gulf region to 1.8 million former service members who were stationed elsewhere. The disease is known clinically as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. 

The study found 40 veterans of Operation Desert Shield or Operation Desert Storm had ALS, for a rate of 6.7 cases per million persons. That compared with 67 cases, or 3.5 per million, among veterans who weren't in the Persian Gulf region.

Normally such a study would not be the basis for determining that a medical condition is service-connected until it has had a scientific peer review.

But Principi said he was making financial aid available immediately "because of the progressively fatal nature" of the disease.

"Those veterans who have contracted the disease cannot wait for the peer review process to be completed," Principi said at VA headquarters. "They need help now, and we will offer it to them."

The VA and the Pentagon now will pursue additional studies seeking the cause and a possible cure of the disease, he said.

The two agencies have been conducting other studies in a search for some explanation of the various health problems called the "Gulf War syndrome."

Veterans suffering from ALS who did not serve in the Persian Gulf region during the conflict are not eligible for the compensation because their illness is not considered service-connected, Principi said.

The action was cheered by the major veterans organizations.

"Certainly we applaud the administration for deciding to award the compensation and benefits immediately, rather than wait for exhaustive reviews," American Legion spokesman Steve Thomas said.

ALS is a neurological disorder that progressively destroys the nerve cells controlling muscle movement. Its cause is unknown and there is no known cure. The disorder got its unofficial name because ALS forced the retirement in 1939 of New York Yankees great Lou Gehrig, 1995.whose record for consecutive baseball games played stood until 1995.

The study of 2.5 million veterans cost $75 million, most of which came from the Pentagon. It followed two smaller surveys that showed no link between service in the Persian Gulf and Lou Gehrig's disease.

Principi said the more extensive study was conducted because of the continued urging of veterans and veterans organizations.