Unraveling a mystery

Dallas-based researchers at last win some respect for their work on Gulf War Syndrome

Shortly after the war started, U.S. troops bombed Iraqi warehouses that stored sarin gas. Clouds containing low levels of the gas blew over the troops. "The gene study explains why one guy would get sick and another wouldn't," Haley says. "If he had a low amount of the PON-Q enzyme, the gas would go right to his brain. They told us we'd never be able to prove what the soldiers were exposed to, but we proved it was sarin."

Scientists who claim the sample size is too small to be significant have met the study with some caution. That's a criticism that was lodged at the early studies into another controversial disease -- AIDS. "The following five and six studies of the AIDS epidemic all confirmed what the first showed," Haley says. "With an epidemic, you don't get a difference in outcome by just increasing the sample size. This is also more cost-effective. Anyone can design a study with 1,000 people. But this is the most efficient way to solve a problem. The government did a random sampling on all 700,000 vets, and they found out nothing after spending millions."

The Southwestern doctors have proposed doing a big random-sample survey of Gulf War veterans, but the Veteran Affairs central office, he says, has been the holdout. "They've been extremely negative about our work," Haley says. "They've done everything to thwart our efforts."

Researchers led by Dr. Robert Haley have identified a possible cause for Gulf War Syndrome.
Mark Graham
Researchers led by Dr. Robert Haley have identified a possible cause for Gulf War Syndrome.

Haley has intensely studied 250 members of a mobile construction battalion that traveled across the war zone, and he feels certain his group's work has pinpointed why they're sick and how it happened. Now the question is, How common are the findings to the other vets who are complaining? The Southwestern doctors have been turned down twice for a random-selection study, but Haley thinks the third time might be the charm.

"Our timing is better, and we've developed support for our theory," he says. "There's a general consensus now in the science world that we're right, but it hasn't been proved to their satisfaction or mine. It doesn't feel good yet, because we haven't made anyone well yet." Southwestern is testing five medications to see whether any make a difference on the vets' symptoms.

As for the hard knocks he and his colleagues have endured along the way, Haley is philosophical. "That's the way science is. We're all skeptical about any new finding until it's proved. It's very cruel to people with new ideas, and it ought to be. It keeps science from being trivial and haphazard."

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