Maybe you’ve heard Chris Yarger’s story before. It has become uncomfortably familiar. After serving his country in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, he returned home to Abilene to resume his work as a ranch hand. He began to experience fatigue, nausea, loss of balance, rashes, joint and muscle pain, insomnia, and memory loss. The symptoms had no apparent cause. A doctor told him he was depressed, and over the next three years he took a variety of antidepressants. But he didn’t get any better. He lost sixty pounds, quit his job, applied for Social Security disability, and was turned down. In 1998 he finally obtained disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs for an “undiagnosed illness,” but not before he’d gone through the family savings and had to apply for food stamps.
“It would have been better if I had just been killed over there,” says the 44-year-old Yarger with a caustic chuckle.
If Yarger sounds a little edgy, it’s because he has spent the past decade in the crossfire of a fierce battle about the nature of his affliction—known most commonly as Gulf War Syndrome ( GWS)—and, more generally, about just what constitutes a disease and