Soldiers who fired off dozens of tear gas grenades that sickened a neighboring community have told investigators that they felt pressured to use their ammunition by the end of the fiscal year.
The 66th Military Police Company burned up grenades and other pyrotechnic ammunition because of concerns that supplies allocated for the next budget period would be reduced by the amount left over, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported Saturday.
The fiscal year ended seven days after the Sept. 23 incident.
The P-I report was based on soldiers’ statements to Army investigators. The newspaper obtained a copy of the full administrative investigation through the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The Fort Lewis company went into the field with leftover ammunition from the entire 504th Military Police Battalion, soldiers said in sworn statements to investigators. One of the battalion’s three companies had been sent to Bosnia earlier this year and was unable to use the ammunition for training.
Dozens of smoke grenades, flares and 34 hand grenades containing C-S riot control tear gas were set off at the end of a nighttime training exercise.
The explosions released a cloud of smoke and tear gas over a Spanaway neighborhood nearby. Hundreds of people were sickened and more than 60 had to be evacuated.
The next day, students at several schools became ill, and five schools were shut down for two days while authorities decontaminated them.
Fort officials said last week the incident violated three safety regulations, and four members of the unit face administrative punishments that could ruin their careers.
“The improper discharge of the pyrotechnics smoke and tear gas which took place was not in accordance with the established guidelines of Fort Lewis regulations and policies,” base spokesman Lt. Col. Gary Hovatter said last week.
Hovatter said Friday that although members of the unit had a “perception of being pressured” to use up the ammunition, Army regulations in fact do not punish units for ending a fiscal year with ammunition or other budgeted material left over.
A half-dozen soldiers involved in the discharge of the pyrotechnics and others in the unit’s chain of command described a “use it or lose it” mentality that pressured those conducting training to expend all the ammunition allocated for the fiscal year.
“Yes, there was pressure from my command to use 100 percent of the training ammunition,” one member of the 66th MP Company said in a statement to investigators.
The investigation also contained a statement from a sergeant that the company was aware it was training close to the perimeter fence of the base. Hours before the incident, the unit had opted not to fire tear gas “because of the proximity to Highway 507,” the soldier said. The highway enters Fort Lewis just south of Spanaway Lake.
The investigation concluded that two officers in the military police unit gave approval for the firing of the smoke and tear gas even though they were aware the procedure violated three Army or Fort Lewis regulations limiting the use of riot-control agents and the willful loss of government property.
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