Gulf War Syndrome Still a Mystery

Monday, October 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ABILENE, Texas (AP) — Despite a firm grip on his ever-present walking cane, Chris Yarger has trouble getting around his home. Household chores can take the Gulf War veteran hours and leave him exhausted. His memory has grown weak, and he hasn't held a job in some five years.

``I forget where I put things within two minutes and my concentration is only good for about 10 minutes,'' said Yarger, 43, who once learned three foreign languages to join a top-secret Army unit. ``I'm not as sharp as I once was.''

Nearly a decade after Yarger and more than 100,000 other U.S. soldiers returned from the Middle East, a debate still rages over whether Gulf War Syndrome exists and what the government should do about it. Texas researchers, meanwhile, have been gathering evidence that some troops may have suffered a form of brain damage.

Veterans say they suffer from a strange assortment of woes characterized as Gulf War Syndrome: memory loss, anxiety, severe nausea, balance disturbances, and chronic muscle and joint pain.

The Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs, after a slow start, have acknowledged a serious health problem exists but insist no single illness is behind Gulf War Syndrome.

The Texas researchers, however, believe they have developed a strong theory that no one has refuted.

``It's not a bunch of disconnected symptoms as we once thought since we are finding more and more evidence of real brain damage,'' said Robert Haley, chief epidemiologist for the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

Meanwhile, the political currency on the issue has dwindled, taking its place behind concerns that the Clinton administration is not doing enough about America's dependence on foreign oil.

At a Senate hearing earlier this month, Dallas billionaire Ross Perot, who has funded Haley's research, said the controversy about Gulf War illness ``is Agent Orange revisited,'' alluding to the defoliant used during the Vietnam War that the Pentagon once claimed would not harm those exposed to it.

Perot said the failure to pinpoint a cause and treatment was due to the Pentagon's unwillingness to retreat from early theories that the sicknesses were stress-related.

Bernard Rostker, head of the Defense Department's Gulf War illness investigations, denied that government research is focused on stress. He suggested that Haley's findings need to be replicated with a larger group of veterans.

``We don't draw a conclusion on Dr. Haley's research. We are perfectly willing to support it,'' Rostker said. ``But we don't again want to see Dr. Haley lobbying in place of the peer review, competitive research process.''

Scores of other university- and government-sponsored studies along with congressional hearings have failed to establish why some Gulf War veterans came home sick. Some point to chemicals in the battlefield air, anti-nerve gas pills, vaccinations or rare infections.

Initially, Haley was among the skeptics. But after poring over the medical histories of more than 2,000 sick veterans who had asked Perot for help, he became convinced more research needed to be done.

Haley's team six years ago focused on veterans with the most dramatic and inexplicable symptoms. The result was a 1997 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that concluded some soldiers suffer from distinct symptom clusters caused by chemical poisoning and that some may have suffered neurological damage from nerve gas or pesticides.

``Once you're confronted with that kind of scientific evidence, you can't help but aim for the truth,'' Haley said.

Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has secured $5 million for Gulf War illness research in next year's defense spending bill. The money is expected to go to UT Southwestern. The center is seeking another $25 million to expand its research.

The data for Haley's work was gathered from the ranks of a Naval Mobile Construction Battalion whose troops traveled throughout the Gulf War theater and were exposed to a variety of desert camps.

Not only did UT Southwestern researchers find subtle brain damage, but they say they've made a strong link between brain cell loss near the brain stem and abnormal overproduction of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurochemical that plays a key role in degenerative brain diseases, including Parkinson's.

For Yarger, the main issue is the government's responsibility to allocate the resources to find the source of the illness — regardless of the cost.

``The bottom line is there are too many people that are sick and this has been going on for 10 years,'' the former rancher said. ``We've got to find some answers.''


On the Net:

University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas' Gulf War illnesses site:—pages/epidemi/gws/

Department of Defense's Gulf War illnesses site: