Pentagon whittles backlog of 1,235 unanswered veterans' phone calls

WASHINGTON, February 26, 1997 (GulfLINK) The Pentagon's Gulf War Illnesses investigation team now has 18 specialists on board to deal with a backlog of 1,235 telephone calls that accumulated over the preceding 17 months.

"We now have people manning the phones on two overlapping shifts each workday," said Marie Danco, who is in charge of the callback program. "They are all veterans and some served in the Gulf."

Danco said, "Prior to January, there was no staff dedicated to interviewing all the veterans who wanted to report incidents that might be related to Gulf War illnesses. The messages just piled up until the Pentagon established the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses. Now we have a printout of all the people who telephoned the Gulf War Hotline from May through December and we are working our way through that backlog."

She said the new augmented staff was in place and started making callbacks January 8. She said, "So far, everyone has been pleased to be called back-though many are very surprised to get a call after so many months have passed."

The major part of the work in Danco's office is interviewing veterans about their personal experiences in order to develop a body of factual material that the team of investigators and analysts can use as they try to build the record of what happened during the war that might be related to the Gulf War illnesses.

The record of each interview is entered into a computer and fully indexed. Danco explained, "Let's say a veteran describes a suspected incident of mustard gas at Hafr al-Batn. The investigator working on mustard gas will get it when he queries our computer on 'mustard' and the investigator working on Hafr al-Batn will get it when he queries the computer on 'Hafr al-Batn'."

The interviews go beyond a specific incident in place and time. "For example, we're interested in the pattern of use of pyridostigmine bromide (PB)," Danco said. "Someone who says they used the pills will be questioned on how many pills they took at one time, how frequently they took them, for how many days they continued taking them, and what side effects, if any, they experienced. This helps the investigators and analysts get a better idea of how the tablets were really used."

Danco said, "The interviews have run as short as 10 minutes and as long as 21/2 hours."

Danco urged veterans with any experiences that may be related to the origins of Gulf War illnesses to call the Gulf War Hotline in Monterey, California, at 1-800-472-6719.