On the third day of the Persian Gulf War, a message flashed through military command centers across Saudi Arabia: A Czech unit had detected chemical weapons.
U.S. and Allied troops donned gas masks and protective uniforms. Specially trained teams sniffed the air with sensitive chemical detectors.
They did not detect chemicals and dismissed it as another false alarm.
But a secret study conducted three years before the Gulf War and now declassified shows U.S. and Allied equipment could not detect a kind of chemical weapon - dusty agents - that also could go right through the troops’ protective suits.
The Czechs’ system could detect the agents, and their troops used rubber suits that could protect them.
Could U.S. troops have been exposed to chemical “dusty agents” unleased by their own bombings?
Some veterans now suspect that’s what happened and are pushing the Pentagon for answers.
The vets say the Czechs detected dusty agents created when Allied bombs blew up Iraqi chemical storage sites, blasting chemicals and desert sand into the sky.
“We manufactured our own dusty agent threat by bombing the bejesus out of the area,” said Jim Brown, director of GulfWatch, a veterans’ advocacy group. “We couldn’t detect them, and the Czechs could. And the suits don’t help - when the dust gets trapped in the suit, it makes it worse.”
The Pentagon rejects the theory while acknowledging it cannot explain the Czech detections.
“We’ve looked at their (the Czechs’) training, their equipment and the techniques that they used, and we think that they’re all sound,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Tom Gilroy said Friday. “The big question is: What would be the source of these detections?
“We don’t believe that it came from the bombing. We believe the wind was blowing in the opposite direction and wouldn’t have blown where they (the Czechs) were. It would have carried it back into Iraq.”
James Tuite III, a former congressional investigator who long has advocated the bombing theory, said the Pentagon is ignoring a CIA computer model, weather charts and satellite photos that show the winds were blowing from the bombed sites toward the troops.
Tuite said the Czechs were the only ones in the gulf likely to detect dusty agents, which the Soviets and their allies have known about since the end of World War II.
Dusty agents are made by bonding nerve gases and blister agents to small dust particles. Iraq used at least one type of dusty agent in its 1980-88 war with Iran and was thought to have stockpiled them at some of the sites Allied aircraft bombed starting Jan. 17, 1991.
Postwar medical studies have shown that the sand and dust common to the Persian Gulf region are capable of absorbing and carrying infectious diseases.
Brown and others say the same desert dust could have been contaminated with chemical agents released in the bombings, creating massive clouds of dusty agents.
A secret January 1988 Pentagon study showed dusty agents could penetrate the breathable chemical suits used by U.S. and NATO forces, but were stopped by the rubber suits issued to Soviet troops and their Warsaw Pact allies.
The study, “Dusty Agents: Implications for Chemical Warfare Protection,” was posted earlier this year on GulfLink, the Pentagon’s Internet site for Gulf War illnesses.
The study also found that Allied equipment designed to detect chemical agent vapors probably would not detect dusty agents - but the wet chemistry used by Warsaw Pact forces, including the Czechs, would.
In the years since the Gulf War, the Pentagon first dismissed the Czech detections as false, then described them as “credible” but said there was not an explanation for the source of the agents or why the Czechs were the only ones to detect them.
Declassified documents on GulfLink, including the report of a 1993 investigation by the Czech Ministry of Defense, show:
Three Czech units, separated by as many as 30 miles, each detected low levels of nerve and blister agents Jan. 19. At least one detection was made by a Czech unit near King Khalid Military City, the giant compound in the Saudi desert that served as home for thousands of U.S. and Allied troops in the buildup to the ground war.
Samples taken from the area were tested in a laboratory and confirmed the presence of chemical agents.
“This was a confirmation technique that is far beyond anything we have,” Tuite said.
The concentrations detected were at the lower limit of what was considered dangerous to humans and, within two hours, had dropped to an undetectable level.
The Czechs initially reported they were under chemical attack, but later decided they detected agents released by Allied bombings on Iraqi chemical warfare plants and storage sites. The nearest site was more than 100 miles away.
Gilroy said the Pentagon still is studying the Czech detections and will release a report on its findings in the future. Bernard Rostker, who leads the Pentagon investigation into Gulf War illnesses, recently met with Czech officials, Gilroy said.