ALTHOUGH MY MILITARY CAREER preceded the Gulf War, I have nevertheless harbored a warm, fuzzy empathy with those veterans who claimed that they suffer the ravages of Gulf War Syndrome. After all, they are brethren in arms, despite a lack of contemporaneity. If they had indeed been afflicted with the effects of chemical or biological agents while in the theater of operations, then they warranted an official acknowledgment of their condition and some compensation from the federal government for a service-related disability. I was outraged by what I perceived to be our government's attempt to avoid any responsibility for the debility of these brave men, despite the emotional appeal of the victims and their families before the congressional committees, the compelling testimony of GWS experts, the heartrending articles in the newspapers, the expose on 60 Minutes. What meanspiritedness to deny deserving veterans just compensation for their pain and suffering. Why, that could have been me sitting in a wheelchair!
This was my position, until I read Michael Fumento's excellent piece in your March issue, "Gulf Lore Syndrome." My sympathetic mindset has been radically altered by his most convincing and insightful report. Fumento has pointedly rebutted or at least introduced a great measure of doubt into the existence of GWS. What began as a casual read turned out to be a learning experience. It would appear that GWS, like the AIDS tragedy, has become an emotional issue for political and media grandstanding rather than a medical condition that requires a medical solution.
I WAS IMPRESSED with Fumento's compassionate concern for the devastating effect that this media-generated hysteria has had on so many veterans. As he says, most of them have no expertise to distinguish real from suggested disease. They deserve better. I am a physician in practice for over 40 years, and people have no idea how seriously disability-seeking behavior can impact their lives. They have to play the disabled game. A veteran who is seeking new benefits or is receiving benefits as long as he/she remains disabled will often not look for a job, won't even help with the dishes or take out the garbage, and does not even have to be nice to his family. Such a person may think that he has or will have a pretty good deal, but ask his family and friends what they think of this new person whom they have to contend with.
The veterans' organizations and many politicians are guilty of hurting many of the very people they allege to help by their suspicion of and opposition to the legitimate concerns of science.
Frank R. Williams, M.D.
Palo Alto, CA
IT IS SO GOOD to see in print a view contrary to the unreasonable and unreasoning flood in the general media. Sometimes I question my own reasoning when faced with such a deluge of contrary opinion. I was working at the Veterans Administration when we went through the last example of this epidemic hysteria, "Agent Orange." I remember one journal commenting on a civil suit that a veteran had filed. He stated that Agent Orange had caused his children to be born with polydactyly. He won his case even though the defense showed that this trait had occurred in the plaintiff's family for generations back.
As clinic doctors we participated in collecting data by surveying veterans. This survey had no context and could not provide any meaningful information, just a litany of complaints. Studies such as the New England Journal of Medicine article you cited were done and published in scientific journals, never to see the light of mass media. I fear we are about to throw a vast amount of money down this hole again and nothing will stop it.
Michael O. Montgomery, M.D.
Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology
I BOTH WRITE and edit for a political and policy newsletter (The Lone Star Report) and have worked in a press capacity for both elected officials and candidates. To someone who has had to deal with the absolute lack of journalistic standards (or even common sense) when it comes to scientific and environmental issues, your article is a breath of fresh air. It was just wonderful. How is it that the press can be so stupid when it comes to reporting on these issues? They are so quick to print, and so slow to check their facts. I have had to deal with this type of thing before, but your attempts to get at the truth here must have been mind- boggling.
Unfortunately, a whole industry has grown up around GWS. Truth hurts the bottom line, so myth and hysteria must be continued. Sure, the people involved truly believe there is a problem, but it's still not provable. Many really believe in psychic hotlines, but they are still fakes. I used to think that this type of media goofiness was confined to late-night talk shows with UFO formats. But now it's on the front page of the local paper.
James A. Cooley
I RECENTLY READ the article on GWS in REASON. I am a lieutenant in the Marine Corps, and although I was not in the Gulf myself, I have friends who were. I also have the collateral duty of NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) officer for my company. I would like permission to reproduce your article so that I may pass it around my unit in the interest of truth and understanding. In the military, rumors become gospel even faster than your research shows, and I think that your article would be useful in dispelling a few of these myths running rampant in the Corps.
I HAVE SPENT part of my career as an epidemiologist and all of my career dealing with epidemiologically related issues. Your article showed an excellent grasp of the basic epidemiological principles which must be applied in order to understand any new disease or phenomenon. Unfortunately, most of these principles seem to be beyond almost all of the people writing about illness in Gulf War veterans. You have made a real contribution.