Veterans Data Management Team Answers the Call of Duty

WASHINGTON, March 11, 1998 (GulfLINK)-- A relatively small group of people working in an office that looks out over the Washington suburbs is providing Gulf War illnesses investigators vital information as they continue to search for the reason some Gulf War veterans are ill. A quick glance around the office provides few clues to its function. One that stands out is the steady background murmur of people speaking on the telephone, punctuated by the ring of another incoming call.

The workplace is home to the veterans data management team, a part of the Office of the Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense for Gulf War Illnesses. Marie Danco heads the group. She says her 18-person team embodies the goal of serving the Gulf War veterans.

"Our primary mission is to return the calls of the veterans who have called the incident reporting line," she says.

Danco explains that when a call is made to the incident reporting line, the call is logged and the caller's information is then sent electronically to the veterans data management office. After receiving the information, the contact managers swing into action.

Bernard Rostker, Gulf War illnesses special assistant, says the veteran's interviews conducted by contact managers play a vital role in narrowing the search for the cause of Gulf War illnesses.

"We're listening to our veterans and incorporating what they tell us into our investigations."

He says whenever a veteran calls into the DoD Incident Reporting hotline, a trained contact manager calls them back to debrief them within 48 hours.

"In addition to gathering information about the veteran's experiences in the Gulf War, we try to answer any questions the veteran may have and provide them information about the on-going efforts of the DoD and Department of Veterans Affairs," Rostker said.

Danco says the initial calls made by the contact managers to the veterans often mark the first time many vets have spoken with someone from the federal government who is interested in helping them with their Gulf War experience.

"Calls can take anywhere from 20 minutes to sometimes over two hours," Danco says. "It depends on what the veteran wants to talk about."

She says that much of the success the team has enjoyed since starting in December 1996, can be credited to the contact managers and the experience they bring to the job. She says a critical quality each contact manager possesses is a connection with the military. Each of the contact managers is a veteran of either the Navy, Army, Air Force or Coast Guard.

"The fact that all our contact managers are veterans themselves really establishes a rapport from the beginning of each call," Danco says. "The veterans just feel freer to talk to somebody who shares the same military experiences."

Mike Anders, one of the contact managers, currently serves with the National Guard. He says that using vets as contact managers was a wise move in more ways than one.

"The way the team has been set up has been very good at taking people from different branches of the service, different experiences," Anders says. "Some people go all the way back to the Vietnam War, some folks not that far. So, we can draw on each other's experiences. I think the most important thing is that we're all about the same age group and, more or less, we all come from the same kind of background."

That sentiment is echoed by another contact manager, James Reeves, who recently retired after 22 years of federal service.

"I guess one of the most important things is the ability to communicate with the veteran," Reeves says. "Everyone here has a military background and they [the veterans] can relate, to some extent, when you're talking to them about certain things and certain situations."

Danco says the contact managers are also truly committed to trying to help each veteran.

"They're very concerned, they're very interested in helping the veterans. You can see it on their faces as they're sitting there talking to somebody for a long time," she says.

However, she says that commitment can bring other hazards associated with the calls to the surface, namely getting too involved.

"It doesn't happen too often because these are all mature analysts. The average age is 47," Danco says. "I think it's the experience they bring in here, being in the military, and the different ranges of responsibilities that people have had that really makes them able to handle this."

Contact manager Roy Crosse says the most common pitfall is actually frustration.

"That comes from not having the horsepower to fix things. Most of us were in the business of fixing things all of our life," he explains. "And now I'm sitting here and answering the phone and taking it all in. But I can't pick up the phone and say, 'I want this taken care of .' All I can do is listen to this guy and calm him down."

However, as soon as the call is over and the information entered into the system by the contact managers, another part of the Gulf War illnesses team takes the information and acts on it. Members of the case management assignment team act on information gleaned from the contact manager's interviews with the veterans. Depending on the urgency, CMAT will either assign an action officer to follow up on the Gulf War veteran's case or start working the case themselves. In either case, the needs of the veteran remain paramount to all other considerations.

Danco says speaking to the veterans on the telephone is occasionally like manning a crisis line.

"The veteran tends to unburden himself a lot of times and tells us how he's feeling or a problems he may have at the time or may just call because he wants to give us information because he thinks it's important that we hear from as many people as possible."

But, as Crosse points out, the contact managers quickly learn to put it all in perspective.

"Eight out of 10 calls are routine, straight question and answers. Then you have a caller who has problems but is more interested in just talking with someone. Then the tenth caller is the one that's strung out and you wonder where he's going to be tonight if you can't do something for him this afternoon."

All of the contact managers agree that, above all, they each have a strong desire to help every veteran they call.

"You've got to be a person who wants to listen," says Reeves. "I get the sense that I'm helping someone."

Another thing this diverse group agrees on is the feeling each has of working toward the goal of finding causes for Gulf War illnesses.

"You actually feel like you're doing something to solve the problem," says Reeves.

The DoD Incident Reporting Line is available at 1-800-472-6719.

The Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program can be reached at 1-800-796-9699.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Registry can be reached at 1-800-749-8387.