For whistleblowers who put everything on the line, being “right” can be strange territory.
On one hand it is vindicating, to have the world know your claims were real. Nevertheless, when those claims reveal a gross abuse of government, or the neglect and suffering of others, being right means at the very least, most of the world would have preferred you were wrong.
Truth-telling can be an awkward business.
But nearly everyday someone is risking their job and reputation because they feel it is the right thing to do. Sometimes, they get their comeuppance and better yet, something good comes out of it.
“They’re exposing the truth and holding powerful agencies accountable and there are always significant repercussions afterwards. These are not easy decisions to make,” said filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who directed and produced The War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State, in 2013.
“But when the very foundation of one’s freedom is at stake,” he shared with The Unz Review, “ that often overrules personal concerns about safety and security.”
Take Dr. Stephen Coughlin, for instance. As this writer reported nearly a year ago in The American Conservative, he quit a fairly prestigious job as an epidemiologist at the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Public Health over what he called insurmountable ethical issues that he felt put veterans and their families at risk. He did this after bringing his complaints through the “proper channels” on the inside. But when he hit the brick wall, he left the VA and later gave this damning testimony to Congress in March 2013, prompting an agency investigation:
In view of the pervasive pattern where these officials fail to tell the truth, even to VA leadership, VA cannot be expected to reform itself. These problems impact the balance of risks and benefits of federally funded human subjects research costing tens of millions of dollars and which fail to serve the interests of the veterans they are intended to benefit.
In addition to other projects, Coughlin worked on two major VA veterans’ surveys, the Follow-up Study of a National Cohort of Gulf War and Gulf War Veterans, and the National Health Study of a New Generation of U.S. Veterans, the latter of which is assessing some 60,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets for health and quality of life issues. In both surveys, thousands of vets responded that they were having suicidal thoughts. When Coughlin realized there was no mechanism for reaching out to each those vets with qualified assistance, he raised a stink.
“Only after my supervisors threatened to remove me from the study and attempted disciplinary action against me” was he able to secure help for the vets in the Gulf War study, he said in a previous interview. But he was only able to get help for some five percent of the 2,000 recent veterans who said they felt there was no reason to live. This, on top of other complaints of skewing data regarding the adverse health effects of environmental and other exposures in war, coupled with issues of professional bias that he felt obscured the truth about veterans’ health, broke the camel’s back, as they say – Coughlin quit and took his complaints to congress. His testimony in March 2013 sent an electric charge through the active veterans’ health advocacy community.
It took Coughlin a year to find another job in his field, but in the meantime, thanks to his testimony, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, himself a retired general, ordered an investigation into his claims. The VA quietly released the results of its investigation (par for the course, Coughlin hadn’t even been informed until a reporter approached him this winter) in July, which bore out some of Coughlin’s most troubling revelations.
According to the conclusions of the Office of Research Oversight (ORO) investigation, Coughlin was justified in forcing the issue of follow-ups by trained mental health clinicians for the veterans who appeared suicidal in the surveys. He was also right – and this seems to be a difficult admission by the oversight review board – in perceiving that his career with the VA was being personally threatened when he made his charges, and argued for changes in procedures.
The report said that Coughlin had every right to feel threatened, and recommended that the Office of Public Health leadership “receive targeted human resources training regarding dispute resolution, reasonable accommodations, dealing with medical information in the workplace, and refresher supervisory training.”
The ORO chose not to back Coughlin on his other claims, which were just as explosive. For example, he argued that the Office of Public Health was deliberately manipulating survey questions to hide what appeared to be a very real connection between the burn pits and oil fires in Afghanistan and Iraq and health problems among vets at home. The OPH said the data was too complicated to draw broad conclusions without more testing – the investigators agreed: “OPH leadership had both the authority and the responsibility to set program priorities,” it said in its final report.
None of this exactly rises to the level of a Hollywood reckoning, and it certainly has no real teeth, but it’s a start. After Coughlin testified last year, three VA officials resigned quietly, though no one can say they were directly attributed to Coughlin or to the other scandals (the backlog, pay bonuses, etc.). But thanks to him, journalists and advocates have one more insight into how these issues of post-deployment health – which, let’s face it, haven’t gone right since Vietnam, seemingly – are being handled in Washington.
For Coughlin, who finally found a new full-time position as a senior researcher at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Memphis, the ratification, however nuanced, is motivation. His testimony might have closed doors on the job front for a while, but it opened others in the veterans’ community. He is more interested than ever, for example, in the keeping the VA honest on the burn pit issue as the agency opens the first Burn Pit registry for U.S military personnel who might have been exposed to toxic fumes and are now suffering from debilitating health problems. The registry is supposed to launch this spring, thanks to the push from veterans groups and congress.
“I do feel my efforts helped veterans,” he told The Unz Review. “I have heard from hundreds of veterans who have emailed or called and written letters to thank me for speaking out. “Everything has turned out well, and I’ve moved past this bad experience,” he added. “It was a dysfunctional, pathological work environment there. We were supposed to be doing things to protect the health and well being of veterans and unfortunately some of these things (that I revealed) worked against that.” He then ticked off a handful of other VA whistleblowers he knew across the country who, like him, felt compelled to leave their jobs after “speaking out about patient safety issues.”
Daniel Sullivan, who with his parents started the Sergeant Sullivan Center, is now one of Coughlin’s biggest boosters. The Washington, DC-based center is named after his brother Sgt. Thomas Joseph Sullivan, 30, who died upon returning from Iraq. He had been suffering from “health complications that included chronic widespread pain, swelling, severe inflammatory bowel issues, and side effects of pharmaceutical treatments” when he passed away in February 2009. A postmortem found that Thomas Joseph had widespread organ and cardiovascular degeneration that had not been previously diagnosed. Rather, his family contends, he had been plied with psychosomatic drugs as though his ailments were all in his head.
These drugs exacerbated his health issues and eventually led to his death, according to his family. It is a reoccurring theme dating back to the first Gulf War — that the agency promotes a bias, that sick vets with illness and pain not immediately defined are suffering from psychological “stress” rather than physical maladies . It was raised again during Coughlin’s 2013 testimony, and has been echoed by veterans’ advocates, including doctors like Lee Steele, an epidemiologist specializing in Gulf War illness:
There are widespread examples, large and small, of VA “minimizing” the Gulf War illness problem. It is unthinkable, for example, that VA’s current national study of Gulf War veterans, conducted in 2013, does not assess Gulf War illness symptoms. This is the largest study of 1991 Gulf War veterans conducted in the U.S., targeting 30,000 veterans. It includes scores of questions in such areas as psychological stress, substance abuse, and alternative medicine. But it does not include the basic symptom data needed to define Gulf War illness, by any case definition. This is a wasteful and inexcusable missed opportunity at best, and something akin to scientific malpractice at worst.
But the Sullivan Center was founded to fight for vets who might be trapped in the same cycle of over-medication, and is looking for answers as to why young vets like Sullivan came home with such severe health problems in the first place. Despite what the VA says, they feel the need to push.
The VA has strenuously denied this bias, and during the same 2013 hearing, contended that “VA facilities throughout the nation are working on bold, innovative programs that combine primary care and specialty care services” for Gulf War veterans, testified Dr. Victoria Davey, Chief Officer, Office of Public Health and Environmental Hazards Veterans Health Administration. She did not address Coughlin’s complaints directly.
Shinseki, for his part, has said that “all allegations of malfeasance are taken seriously and are investigated fully.”
“Steve’s testimony revealed the institutional nature of the problem – in that respect he is a hero to us all,” Sullivan told The Unz Review in a recent interview. The center is giving Coughlin its Award for Excellence in Deployment Health Science.
“We believe you are a model of courage for every scientist working at the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as other agencies, and your decision to provide testimony about your experiences at the VA has, I believe, changed the course of history for the VA and its stakeholders in very positive ways,” he wrote to Coughlin this month.
Of course, the award is recognition, but it can only be a salve on the bitter fact – that Coughlin’s testimony revealed that veterans likely continue to suffer long after they come home. His revelations can only speed up the attention they get now. This is what whistleblowers must contend with – whether it be Danny Davis, who called out the generals’ whitewash of the war in Afghanistan, or even Edward Snowden, who shattered any semblance of disbelief over total secret government surveillance of U.S citizens – being “right” is the first step, and it’s rewards are complicated.
Coughlin underscored this by pointing out that while the ORO validated his complaint that VA supervisors should have provided clinicians to Gulf War vets who expressed suicidal feelings in their survey, it did not find fault with the VA’s decision not to follow-up the same way with all of the 2,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets who indicated the same feelings in the New Generation questionnaires returned by mail.
“I’m still in the dark about what they did, if anything, about those vets in the New Gen study,” said Coughlin.
House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., whose office had worked closely with Coughlin, told reporter Jamie Reno in February that he does not want to see the ORO report gather dust.
Who was held accountable for not following up on veterans who later committed suicide? What happened to the VA personnel who retaliated against Dr. Coughlin? What is VA doing to foster a culture of tolerance for employees who have the courage to speak out against problems despite hostile opposition from co-workers and managers? America’s veterans, American taxpayers and VA’s more than 300,000 employees deserve answers to these questions in short order.”
Sullivan says he wants to get away from the term whistle blowing. “It’s truth-telling,” he said. “And this is something we as a society should honor and recognize.” The Sullivan Center will do it’s part, he added. “We have to create a cushion for people who do courageous things.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com, a regular contributor to antiwar.com, and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine.