CHARLESTON, S.C., May 7 -- As Allied forces launched the ground attack against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait six years ago, Marine Master Sgt. Michael S. Bradford had no doubt why alarms in his "Fox" chemical detection vehicle sounded as it drove over an Iraqi defense. "Gas! Gas! Gas!" Bradford shouted, certain he had crossed the remains of a chemical mine.
"What we had was a mass amount on the ground," Bradford, who commanded one of the first vehicles to cross Iraqi barriers and enter Kuwait, told the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses today. "It wasn't a small amount. It wasn't a trace amount. I'm extremely confident that it was there."
Other Marines told of detecting chemicals in a munitions dump filled with arms bearing Jordanian and Dutch markings. Gunnery Sgt. George Grass told the committee he too was "fully confident" that the detections were accurate, although "the tickets" -- printouts of the chemicals analyzed by the spectrometers in the Fox vehicles -- have been lost.
Thomas P. Cross, a Marine reservist who served in the Gulf conflict and is a member of the White House panel, said he backed his fellow servicemen. "I was there. I heard the alarms."
But Defense Department officials who went before the panel here today cast doubt on such accounts from veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, repeating the military's refrain that chemical exposures for the most part remain unproved.
For its part the advisory committee appeared to side with Bradford and his fellow Marines, saying they knew what they were doing.
As a result, the committee recommended that the Pentagon issue its second warning to U.S. military personnel that a handful were likely exposed to mustard gas near a girls school in Kuwait City following the end of the brief war. Although the number of troops is far smaller than the upwards of 20,000 GIs believed exposed to chemicals at an Iraqi weapons dump, the committee's latest action illustrated that, as Chairman Joyce C. Lashof, said, "We still have a lot of issues to be resolved."
The White House panel has been highly critical of the Defense Department's handling of the veterans' ailments and the likelihood of chemical exposure during the war with Iraq. Whether U.S. troops were exposed to chemical weapons has emerged as a symbolic issue for the thousands of Gulf War veterans who say they have fallen ill to a set of mysterious aliments linked to duty in the Middle East.
For years the military denied any possible chemical exposure. But almost a year ago it dramatically reversed that position after discovering that a cache of chemical weapons was destroyed by U.S. troops shortly after the war ended.
Today the committee continued to cut away at Pentagon statements minimizing the risk of chemical exposures. Under questioning, chemical experts from the Army's Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland conceded that the military's best chemical detection device, the Fox, an armored six-wheel drive vehicle, was less than ideal and operated under a number of limitations that made it unlikely to have detected all chemicals on the battlefield.
The German-built machines contained a sophisticated device for detecting 60 dangerous chemicals, but defense officials conceded that the individuals who operated them were under orders not to stop and test for chemicals during the conflict because of the danger of being shot.
Lashof said that made it impossible for the Fox crews to confirm any of the many battlefield alarms that the vehicles sounded during the war. "From what I hear, there is no way we're going to be able to confirm low levels of chemical agents were there" because of how the vehicles were operated, she said.
Given the vehicles' limitations, the committee today turned to the five Marines who had operated them. All agreed that the alarms that sounded in the Foxes as they crossed into Kuwait at the start of the ground war were indications of Iraqi chemical weapons.
Much of the Defense Department testimony today was based on studies of the few known printouts of Fox vehicle chemical analyses, tests that Pentagon officials said showed the military personnel either did not run their machines properly or the results were inconclusive. Marine Lt. Col. Art Nalls, part of a Defense Department task force, acknowledged, however, that the Fox vehicles were not designed for use in a desert climate or to detect airborne chemicals.
Lashof also won a concession from the Pentagon experts that the Fox vehicles in the Gulf War did not examine the possibility that chemical agents might be found in smaller quantities among other substances such as oil. That might lead U.S. troops to suspect the machine's initial alarms were false, she said.
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