Personal Story: Matthew Matherne
Matt Matherne served in the military before CFS started waging its own battle with his health..
In September of 1990 there was talk of my military unit going to Saudi Arabia in support of what was then called “Desert Shield,” the precursor to the (first) ground war in Iraq.
By this time in my life, I had married a wonderful woman named Claire—an intelligent, good-hearted person and an excellent mother to our son, Keith. Still, I wanted to support our country and go where I was needed. During the Vietnam War, I only got as close as Guam, and that was only on temporary duty. So I volunteered for duty in Saudi Arabia, and was soon on my way.
As it turns out, my one trip to Saudi Arabia was to be my only trip because the ground war started in early February and was all but over in no time. Still, while deployed overseas I served in an operation called Northern Watch and did get to fly over Iraqi air space to refuel fighters who were patrolling a No Fly Zone. I also got to participate in another large operation called Joint Guard, based out of Italy, so the UN could keep tabs on Slobodan Milosevic, then president of Serbia and Yugoslavia, after a peace treaty was signed at the Camp David Peace Accord.
Little did I know when I was flying back home from my one and only trip to Saudi Arabia that what I thought was just a bad cold or the flu would turn out to be something I would battle for years to come. My symptoms got progressively worse as time went on—waxing and waning but never really going away. It got to be a rollercoaster ride with my symptoms getting worse with each bad spell I experienced.
When I finally arrived back in the States, I told my wife and family that they were all making a big deal out of nothing. After all, I was home safe and sound. But my wife was convinced and could not shake the feeling that something bad was afoot. I was soon diagnosed with what is commonly known as Gulf War Syndrome (GWS)—or as Veteran Affairs labels it, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).
My case of GWS/CFS was as classic as other GIs who came back from the Gulf with this strange new disease first discounted by the Department of Defense as “being all in our heads.” The one common denominator that linked all the people who got ill was that we pretty much received the same vaccinations before we deployed or after arriving in the Gulf.
While I was in Saudi Arabia, I felt terrific, with no sense that my life and health would be threatened even though my unit could be attacked in numerous ways while deployed. Now I was so sick that my military career was over.
This was just the beginning of my work struggles with GWS/CFS. As my physical and emotional state got worse, my subsequent job as a field service engineer for a large computer company came to an end because I could no longer deal with the demands. I attempted to work at a couple of smaller computer firms, but I was still daunted by all the symptoms GWS/CFS.
I eventually went to work for a company driving a forklift. I did well for a couple of years until my supervisor wanted me to represent his department in a corporate wide quality initiative. I didn’t want to tell him that I shouldn’t take the position because of my illness, thinking that would negatively affect my chances of staying with the company. But as time went on and the demands of my new position increased—going to special training, putting spreadsheets together, making presentations to department heads—my symptoms flared up again and got worse.
I eventually used up all my sick and vacation days and took unpaid days off in the hope of making some recovery, but it was too late for that. I’m now on full disability, with a fraction of the financial income I would have if I weren’t ill.
Now, in what seems like another kick in my back, my GWS/CFS has taken its toll on my marriage. I can no longer in good conscience keep putting my wife and son through the agony of my emotional and physical battle with this illness. I’ve decided to go live by myself near my sister in Florida. In this way my family, whom I still love, can avoid the trials and tribulations of dealing with my symptoms. This illness is too complicated and too much for even me to understand and deal with sometimes, much less my wife and son. And getting away from the long winters in Maine—and the negative effects the shorter days and cabin fever seem to induce—will also be of some help. The separation will last for a year. We’ll then decide what the future holds.
As I leave for Miami to start another life, I wonder what the next chapter will bring in my “secret war” with CFS.
Matt Matherne is one of many thousands of men who suffer with CFS. The fall issue of the CFIDS Chronicle shares input from him and other men with CFS in a feature story called “Men with CFS.” Subscribe to the CFIDS Chronicle before