Rich Leiby's Dec. 30 article "The Fallout of War" [Style] was an important contribution to the coverage of possible military action against Iraq. In it, he highlights a statistic from the first Gulf War that has been mostly overlooked: The Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs are paying out medical disability payments to 159,238 Gulf War veterans.

The Gulf War was hailed as a great victory. It was a 100-hour ground campaign that took place after more than 32,000 combat air sorties. American forces lost 148 killed and 467 wounded. An additional 147 were killed by accident, disease and other noncombat circumstances.

Today, veterans of that war who speak about illnesses and chronic health problems often are categorized as opportunists, out to get a free ride on the taxpayer. If this is true, why are we paying medical benefits to 159,238? Because they are sick. The departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs don't make it easy to game the system. Illnesses have to be documented in triplicate and linked directly to military service.

The debate about launching another war against Iraq is a healthy one, but it should include more discussion about what was brought to bear against our troops the first time in Iraq.

ROBERT L. McMAHON

Hillsborough, N.J.