OSAGWI reaches out to veterans during
11-city town hall tour


WASHINGTON, June 17, 1997 (GulfLINK)— The Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses (OSAGWI) recently concluded a nationwide, 11-city town hall tour. Designed to discuss issues of concern to Gulf War veterans, this tour was sponsored by the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Bernard D. Rostker, special assistant for Gulf War illnesses, headed the team that met with veterans in Cleveland, Atlanta, Boston, Kansas City, Colorado Springs, Dallas, San Diego, Seattle, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Columbus, Ohio.

"Reaching out to the veterans is a major focal part of our program," said Rostker. "We needed to hear directly from our veterans community, and the town hall meetings have provided an invaluable, open and candid opportunity for discussion. I want to thank the American Legion and the VFW for their help in providing a forum in each of the cities we visited."

The traveling team included specialists from OSAGWI's directorate of investigations and analysis, medical -health and benefits collaboration division, plus the public affairs and outreach branch. Specialists manned exhibit tables at each location on the tour and were available to answer detailed questions. The Department of Veterans Affairs also provided an information table at each location, manned by knowledgeable personnel.

Rostker addressed three basic questions often asked by veterans in his opening remarks, discussing: "Why am I sick?" "Do you really care about us - are you really listening to us?" and "Why should I trust you?"

On the first question --why am I sick? -- Rostker said he didn't have a specific answer to why so many veterans were ill, but elaborated on the Department of Defense's (DoD) investigation into what happened during the Gulf War and how specific events may relate to the health of our veterans. He explained that DoD was looking scientifically at every possible cause. Over 80 health-related investigations, sponsored by the DoD, the VA and other federal agencies are now in progress.

To the question, "Are we listening?" Rostker answered with a resounding "Yes". He sited that there were over 1200 veterans who had made phone calls to the DoD - but were never answered, prior to his office being stood up. Starting in December, 1996, he initiated a program of having trained investigators debrief every veteran who called the DoD concerning what they had seen in the Gulf. The staff has eliminated the backlog of unanswered phone calls, and there are more people today talking with veterans on the hotline numbers than were assigned to the entire DoD Gulf War investigation team before last November, when Rostker was appointed as the special assistant.

In answer to the last and most difficult question --Why should I trust you? -- Rostker's message is that his investigation publishes fully documented histories of what went on in the Gulf as it may relate to Gulf War illnesses. The report on Khamisiyah was the first report to be shared with the nation via GulfLINK, the media, Congress, veterans' service organizations, and the general public.

More recently the report on the Camp Monterey incident was simultaneously published on the GulfLINK home page and released to the press. These case narratives, and many others that will follow, are important because they form the basis for a dialog with knowledgeable people who have helped to develop the relevant information. They are also living documents, because the staff will continue to fill in the blank areas as people call and help us. So, these narratives are works in progress.

Rostker concluded his town hall presentations with an overview of the coming months when the investigation will be expanded to look more closely at the environmental and medical issues and how they may help us better understand the nature of Gulf War illnesses. "I intend to keep my promise of leaving no stone unturned until we have completed our investigations and have as many answers as possible to the questions which concern our veterans," Rostker concluded.