The war over Gulf War Syndrome

Dallas doctors believe they've solved the mystery of sick veterans, but find themselves in "a bloody scientific war" where they are branded charlatans

For Charles Townsend, war, as the saying goes, was hell. Among the first troops deployed to the Middle East during Operation Desert Shield in August 1990, Townsend worked long days in blazing sun and menacing sandstorms to set up a base camp in the Saudi Arabian desert. Repeated fogging of the camps with pesticides did little to stem the swarms of sand fleas and mosquitoes that carried the threat of lethal disease. When the war began in earnest in January, he lived in fear that the Iraqis would attack with chemical nerve agents.

But the stressful eight months that Townsend spent in Saudi Arabia as a member of the 18th Airborne Corps were nothing compared with what he has endured during the seven years since the Persian Gulf War ended in February 1991.

The 48-year-old career Army sergeant has battled an array of mysterious ailments that defy easy diagnosis. He cannot hold a coherent conversation and often finds himself hopelessly lost when traveling through places he has been dozens of times before. His once-athletic physique has withered from years of joint pain, muscle aches, and chronic diarrhea. He is frequently dizzy and suffers from fatigue and sleep disturbances.

"It is as if I was killed in Saudi Arabia and my body's too dumb to realize it, so I'm still walking around," Townsend says.

Trained to jump from planes behind enemy lines, he now has trouble walking a straight line. He was fired from his last job as an assistant in a law firm after just two months because he could not concentrate or think clearly. That was four years ago, and he hasn't worked since. Today, Townsend is essentially homeless, sleeping in his truck in the parking lot of the Dallas Veterans Affairs hospital when he wears out his welcome at the homes of friends and relatives.

After hundreds of visits to the V.A. here and in Houston, doctors have found nothing clinically wrong with him. He says doctors made it clear they thought he was faking in order to collect medical benefits and disability.

Over the years, he grew angry and increasingly agitated, so the doctors decided his medical problems were in his head. For several years they treated him with a host of psychotropic drugs for post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis he resented and adamantly rejected.

"Any post-traumatic stress disorder I had came from the lack of treatment I got at the V.A.," Townsend says bitterly. "You don't get bloody stools from post-traumatic stress disorder. You don't fall down from post-traumatic stress disorder. But you can get pretty stressed out when nobody believes you're sick."

His most recent course of treatment brought him little relief. "I haven't seen an improvement, but rather a slow, steady decline," says his older sister, Sharon Brewer.

Finally, in January, Townsend's doctor at the V.A. took him off the psychotropic drugs and enrolled him in an extensive study at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. The research Southwestern doctors have done into the causes of what has been dubbed Gulf War Syndrome has brought a glimmer of hope to Townsend and thousands of other vets who share his plight.

Led by epidemiologist Dr. Robert Haley, this team of Southwestern doctors is convinced they have scored a medical breakthrough. They believe their studies show that many Gulf War vets suffer from a subtle form of brain and nerve damage caused by low-level wartime exposure to a mixture of toxic chemicals, including pesticides, insect repellent, nerve gas, and experimental anti-nerve-gas pills. What's more, if they are correct, these doctors believe "the country potentially could be sitting on a time-bomb of neurological illness," says toxicologist Dr. Tom Kurt, who is part of Haley's team.

Though far from conclusive, Haley's studies, announced early last year, have been championed by veterans and their advocates nationwide, who long believed the vets were poisoned. But convincing the medical and military establishments that their findings are valid has been nigh impossible.

The Pentagon's official policy is that there is no such thing as Gulf War Syndrome, according to Maj. Tom Gilroy of the Pentagon's Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Veterans. To the extent that the vets' health problems are tied to their service in the war, doctors say their symptoms are too disparate to qualify as any single disease. Conventional medical thought, not to mention the Pentagon party line, places the blame for the veterans' ailments on stress. And the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veteran's Illnesses--a group of medical experts and laymen appointed by President Clinton to study all relevant research and data on the subject--came to the same conclusion in its final report this fall.

So Haley and his colleagues have found themselves in a situation not unlike that of the veterans they have studied for the past four years. They have been disbelieved, maligned, harshly criticized, and all but dismissed. A few months ago, when the Southwestern doctors managed, over the objections of a medical panel, to secure government funding to continue and expand their studies, prominent scientists complained in the national media that politics had triumphed at the expense of good science.

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