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The Veterans' Cause

Controversy over the Pentagon's treatment of Gulf war veterans didn't abate this week with the publication of findings by a presidential panel investigating the illnesses associated with service in that war. If anything, the controversy was given fresh life.

The panel's conclusions, still somewhat tentative, could heighten debate over the causes of the various physical problems experienced by veterans. Panel experts tended to discount the possibility that exposure to Iraqi chemical agents was the prime factor, though they urged further study of the effects of low-level exposure. Other studies, including a just-published one by the University of Texas, appear to strengthen the case for chemical exposure. The Clinton panel emphasized battlefield stress as a factor contributing to the veterans' health problems.

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Medical research will continue, impelled by the frustrations of veterans who feel their difficulties have been downplayed by the military and by the determination of members of Congress who are championing their cause.

While the sources of the highly varied "Gulf war syndrome" may be hard to pinpoint, one cause for the veterans' frustration is not. The Pentagon's long refusal to respond seriously to the veterans' complaints, and its denial, until recently, of the possibility that a significant numbers of soldiers might have been exposed to chemical agents when an Iraqi ammunition dump was destroyed, cast a pall over this whole episode.

That cloud can be lifted by strict honesty and accountability in the congressional hearings to come. This is a matter of reestablishing the bond of trust between the nation and those who put their lives on the line to serve it - a bond too often weakened in the past by official inattention.

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