The Defense Department announced Tuesday it is quadrupling to 20,800 from 5,000 the number of veterans it will contact about possible nerve gas contamination during the Persian Gulf War.
The exposure apparently occurred during demolition work at a large Iraqi munitions dump in March 1991, and it is suspected as one of the causes of unexplained illnesses, including memory loss, intense allergies and numbness, that have been reported by some gulf war participants.
A variety of gulf war veterans groups and members of both parties in Congress have accused the Pentagon of foot-dragging and even cover-ups in dealing with claims of chemical exposure during the war.
In making Tuesday’s announcement, Deputy Defense Secretary John P. White said his department is expanding the geographic area of possible contamination under study from a radius of 15 miles from the dump to 30 miles. The dump contained sarin nerve gas, and as much as 2 tons of the deadly toxin may have been released in the process of destroying Iraqi rocket shells.
The Defense Department also increased the likely duration of the exposure from March 4-13, 1991, to March 4-15, 1991, noting that there may have been one or more demolitions beyond the two thus far reported at Khamisiyah, Iraq.
“The story of Khamisiyah is still incomplete,” White said. “We are putting the puzzle together, and we want those who were there to help us fill in the missing pieces. Khamisiyah is a watershed event in our search for information and understanding of gulf war illnesses. It is the first event where we can place American troops in an area where we believe chemical weapons were destroyed.”
Although the CIA has been preparing a study on the extent of possible exposure to chemical-warfare agents, no report date has been scheduled, and the Pentagon decided to move ahead on its own instead of waiting.
“We don’t have any assurance we’ll have the (CIA) results quickly,” said Defense Department spokesman Kenneth Bacon. “It was decided to act on our own.”
Between March 4 and March 15, some 49 different American units operated in the 30-mile radius of the demolition site, most of them part of the 82nd Airborne Division, the 101st Airborne Division and the 24th Infantry Division. Chemical traces of nerve and mustard gas were found in one bunker and a nearby pit, where the Iraqi weapons were destroyed on three occasions, March 4, March 10 and March 12.
It takes three days for nerve gas to dissipate completely.
About 550 Iraqi rockets that could have carried chemical agents are known to have been at the dump and there may have been many more, the Pentagon conceded.
Tuesday’s announcement follows published reports that Czech army troops in the war had detected widespread evidence of Iraqi chemical weapons deployment and had warned American commanders.
Speaking at a background briefing, a senior Defense Department official said he had no knowledge of any high-level warnings, but said the United States was working with European nations on gulf war health problems.
He denied allegations of cover-ups and said most of the speculation, including much on the Internet, about chemical-warfare exposure has been fueled by information made available by the Pentagon.
Some 85,000 U.S. veterans of the conflict have registered a variety of “gulf war syndrome” health complaints with the Veterans Affairs or Defense departments.
In congressional testimony, veterans raised the possibility that many problems were a result of low-level exposure to various chemicals, including fumes from burning oil fields, pesticides and vehicle paint. The effect may have been aggravated or induced by potent inoculations given American troops being sent into the war, witnesses testified.
Tuesday’s announcement applied only to those troops in the vicinity of the Khamisiyah dump between March 4 and 15, and only to chemical weapons.
The senior official repeatedly stressed that any massive dispersal of nerve gas agents would have immediately caused fatalities and serious illness, but none has been reported.
“To our knowledge, service members at that time did not report the symptoms associated with exposure to chemical agents, but our search for information continues,” White said.
“The possibility that some individuals could have been exposed at low levels has caused us to review our clinical and investigative protocols. We want to reassure our veterans that no effort will be spared in understanding gulf war veterans’ illnesses, and no gulf war veterans will be without the health care they need.”
Until last spring, the Pentagon had maintained there was no evidence any U.S. troops had been exposed to toxic agents during the war.
In June, it confirmed initial findings by a U.N. inspection team at Khamisiyah and queried some 150 soldiers about their exposure.
In August, it began contacting some 1,100 American military personnel assigned to the demolition project, and then increased that number to 5,000 last month. Pentagon officials had previously said more than 15,000 veterans could have been exposed to chemical agents.
Symptoms reported to the VA in some 60,000 cases have included memory loss, disorientation, numbness and intense allergies.
Veterans will be contacted by letter and telephone, and three hot-lines have been established to assist in gathering information. They are: 800-472-6719, for reports to the Pentagon of information on the demolition site and events; 800-796-9699, for the Defense Department health registry; and 800-749-8387, for the Veterans Affairs health registry.
xxxx HOTLINE The Pentagon asks that soldiers who were within 50 kilometers of Khamisiyah call a toll-free hotline - (800) 472-6719 - with information about the March 1991 incidents and about their health.