But at least some of the letters — and the diagnoses — were a mistake.
Jim Bunker, president of the National Gulf War Resource Center, said VA officials told him the letters dated Aug. 12 were the result of a computer coding error that mistakenly labeled the veterans with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
Katie Roberts, a spokeswoman for the VA, said the letters were simply to inform veterans with ALS of disability compensation available to them and were not intended to deliver a medical diagnosis of ALS.
Roberts said the administration has since been contacted by a "small number" of people who did not believe they had ALS. Veterans Administration officials are now reviewing all the cases, Roberts said.
For those who were sent the letters in error, Roberts said, VA officials are personally contacting the recipients to "express VA's sincere apologies for the distress caused by this unfortunate and regrettable error."
Bunker said the letters informed recipients that the ALS diagnosis made them 100% disabled, meaning they were entitled to about $2,700 a month, with additional money for children and spouses.
Although some may view that sought-after 100% designation as a welcome benefit, Bunker said, being diagnosed with a disease that generally kills people within five years far overshadowed any monetary gains.
"The vast majority saw it as bad," he said.
Brent Casey served as an Army medic in the 1990 Gulf War and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic fatigue syndrome.
He has already been classified 100% disabled by the VA, but is working toward a master's degree in business in Louisville. He also volunteers at the local VA.
When Casey's mother called and read him the letter, the 41-year-old thought he had just been read a "death sentence."
"By volunteering at the VA, I've learned a lot of these illnesses. So I knew firsthand what that meant for me," Casey said. "I just had a total meltdown."
Casey learned that the letter was a mistake after making calls to the VA. But he now worries about the veterans who have received the letter and have yet to be contacted about the mistake.
"My concern is, what about the guy who's been on vacation, and he comes home to find this letter this evening?" Casey said. "We need to get the word out to these guys."
Contributing: Alan Gomez in McLean, Va.