July 28, 1997 USA Today
Almost 99,000 Persian Gulf war veterans will be getting a chilling letter from the Pentagon this week: You may have been exposed to chemical warfare agents.
For many vets who fought the 1991 war against Iraq, the official notice merely confirms what they already feared: The U.S. government grossly underestimated rates of exposure to chemical agents in Iraq.
The Pentagon's latest estimate, issued last week, is five times its estimate of last fall. And that follows a series of earlier revisions and surprise discoveries that leave one wondering whether the cause is deception or ineptitude. Either way, the Pentagon's credibility rating now ranks somewhere below bunker level.
Just consider this tawdry history:
The exposures. For five years, Pentagon brass vehemently denied that any U.S. troops had been exposed to any chemical weapons. Period, end of discussion. Reports that Czech troops had detected nerve agents were dismissed. So were reports that American alarm systems had detected nerve gas in the air. Postwar complaints from thousands of troops about mysterious rashes, joint and muscle pain, memory loss and other neurological problems were explained away.
In June 1996, the Pentagon did an about-face, acknowledging that U.S. soldiers had blown up a bunker in southern Iraq, at a place called Khamisiyah, that contained chemical-filled Iraqi rockets.
From that point on, disclosures began to resemble Vietnam War casualty creep. They grew from zero at the start of 1996 to almost 100,000 today. Who knows what future years will bring, especially as government investigators expand their probe beyond Khamisiyah to other chemical agent sites?
The disclosures. Asked repeatedly for logs or other records indicating chemical agent activity in the gulf war, the Pentagon repeatedly denied their existence.
The story changed only after a veterans group in Georgia obtained a portion of logs, prepared for Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf at war headquarters in Saudi Arabia, through the Freedom of Information Act in 1995. Pressured to produce the entire record, the Pentagon had to admit to a critical and highly suspicious gap. Eight days of records, covering the time when U.S. troops were at Khamisiyah, were missing, including paper copies and computer disks that had been stored in locked safes in two different U.S. locations after the war. The Pentagon's questionable explanation: a computer virus, combined with a disorganized office shuffle.
Over at the CIA, history also was being rewritten. Contrary to previous professions of ignorance, the agency acknowledged in April that it had known about chemical weapons in the Khamisiyah bunker since 1984. "We should have done better," said one CIA official.
Indeed. And so should most of the others in charge of postwar truth-telling.
To its credit, the federal government now offers gulf veterans more help with health problems. Medical exams are free, and veterans, even with undiagnosed illnesses, can qualify for lifetime medical care and, in some cases, a monthly compensation check if a service link is suspected.
That's a start. But research has yet to pin down the cause of gulf war syndrome or provide an effective treatment - in large part because the Pentagon was so slow in providing medical detectives with information on which troops were exposed and how.
Even now, as the Pentagon concedes that significant numbers of troops were exposed to low levels of chemical contamination, it continues to downplay the idea that chemicals might have caused gulf war illnesses.
"Although little is known about the long-term effects from a brief, low-level exposure to nerve agents, the current medical evidence indicates that long-term health problems are unlikely," says the letter troops will be receiving this week.
That remains to be seen. In all, more than 10% of the 790,000 men and women who served in the war have reported ailments. Over 100,000 have registered in health programs offered by the Veterans Administration and Department of Defense.
Given the complicated set of circumstances and scarcity of information, no one - especially the Pentagon - can definitively rule out a link.
Six years after the war, too much information still is missing. And time is critical for gulf war veterans and their families - and for veterans of future conflicts - in finding out what dangers lie in fighting a war on a chemical battlefield.