More than 15,000 American troops may have been exposed to low levels of the deadly nerve gases sarin and cyclosarin during the aftermath of the war with Iraq, a Pentagon official said Wednesday.
The new estimate triples the previous number of possible exposures, and the official said it could still go much higher. He didn’t rule out exposure figures in the 100,000 range.
“We’ll have to wait and see. But I think we have to be prepared for the possibility of big numbers. Then the question will be what was the level of exposure, if any,” said Kenneth Bacon, the Pentagon’s top spokesman.
The new estimate, which emerged during a routine question-and-answer session with reporters, could further undermine the Pentagon’s credibility on the mysterious illnesses lumped together under the title of Gulf War Syndrome.
With each increase of the estimate, veterans and members of Congress have become more outraged at what they say looks like a cover-up. Some members of Congress are calling for an independent organization to take over the search for a cause of Gulf War Syndrome, while the Pentagon scrambles to recover its balance on a controversy that won’t go away.
Bacon based his new estimate on preliminary analysis done by the CIA of a second detonation site at the Khamisiyah military complex in southern Iraq.
Last month, officials said 5,000 troops might have been exposed when unmarked chemical warfare rockets were blown up by American combat engineers at Bunker 73 of the complex on March 4, 1991.
The new numbers are based on a much wider potential spread of chemicals from a second detonation of chemical warfare rockets on March 10, 1991, in a pit near Khamisiyah.
Originally, American analysts thought that only 550 rockets were destroyed in the pit. Bacon suggested Tuesday that there may have been more, although no number was released. More-active winds may also have spread the gas farther.
Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the president’s drug czar who formerly commanded the 24th Infantry Division from Fort Steward and Fort Benning, Ga., in the war with Iraq, has said that the bulk of his forces were close to Khamisiyah on the dates the rockets were blown up.
For years, many veterans of the Desert Shield/Desert Storm conflict with Iraq have blamed various maladies on exposure to low levels of chemical weapons.