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Donald Overton

Photos and text used with permission of
Donald Overton.

As we approach the twenty-four year anniversary of the deployment and combat operations known as Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, we should pause to reflect on the continued challenges faced by those that served. Of the 696,842 who served in the conflict, an estimated 250,000 continue to endure adverse health consequences and suffer from the potentially debilitating consequences of undiagnosed multi-symptom illness. The term Gulf War Illness (GWI) has become the commonly recognized term for these conditions.

I served with the 82nd Airborne Division during the first Gulf War and sustained a blast injury in the Kamisiyah region of Iraq. The blast rendered me blind, and I would ultimately be medically retired from the Army. After attending various rehabilitative centers, I would go on to graduate Magna Cum Laude from East Carolina University with a Bachelor's degree in Social Work. Although my recovery and reintegration efforts were moving in a positive direction, my overall health was deteriorating, and no one knew why.

Doctors began treating the various conditions, but the treatments seemed ineffective and often resulted in new conditions. Physical activities became increasingly difficult and my psychological health began to diminish. With limited understanding available in the medical field, most of my doctors began to diagnose my symptoms as being psychological in origin, concluding "it must be in his head."

I found myself slipping into a state of depression, which quickly began to validate the psychological diagnosis. Fortunately, I sought support from a local veteran's organization, the Vietnam Veterans of America. I began to develop an unusual camaraderie with this group of veterans. They taught me about their unique challenges after military service, particularly those related to Agent Orange. Thanks to them, I began my efforts to help raise awareness regarding veterans' health issues related to environmental exposures. I've dedicated the past twenty years of my life providing congressional testimony and public speaking seminars in an ongoing effort to increase awareness and research funding for Gulf War Illness.

I've had the honor and privilege of being nominated by Veterans of Modern Warfare to serve as a peer reviewer for CDMRP's Gulf War Illness Research Program (GWIRP). I find the scientific peer review process to be extremely valuable and rewarding. While we've come a long way over the past twenty three years, the scope of health care and disability challenges facing our Gulf War veterans remains very real and ever increasing. We must act now, with urgency, if we are ever to assist this generation of veterans in their struggles to get all the way back home.

As consumer reviewers with CDMRP, we're afforded the unique opportunity of taking our experiences and incorporating them into the scientific peer review process. Our primary role as consumer reviewers is to represent the collective views of survivors, patients, family members, and anyone else touched by GWI and the research being considered by the panel. We get to assist the scientists in actualizing the human component of the research being proposed. It's a great opportunity for all of us to learn from one another.

Consumers possess something that no level of education or training can ever afford anyone, the knowledge of living with the various illnesses or injuries experienced either directly, or secondarily by those we represent. CDMRP gives us a meaningful voice in the research process, and that gives us hope for the future.