USA Today, September 15, 1997, page A5
By Norm Brewer and John Hanchette, Gannett News Service.
Washington - Gulf War Illnesses in the years following the 1991 conflict with Iraq were handled rather "cavalierly" by the Pentagon, says retired general Norman Schwarzkopf, who led the troops who now say they are sick. Schwarzkopf also told Gannett News Service that he regretted not telling senators earlier this year about a chemical weapons case involving an Ohio soldier. Unpublished battlefront reports showing that Schwarzkopf knew about the soldier in 1991 raised questions about why he told Congress this year that he had no knowledge of anyone being exposed to chemical weapons.
The commanding general of Desert Storm has been a defender of the war and an advocate of helping sick veterans. But he previously has shied from criticizing the Pentagon's investigation of why more than 100,000 Gulf War Veterans report being sick. "When the initial reports (of illness) were coming in it was taken somewhat lightly by some people in the Department of Defense," said Schwarzkopf, who later said he wanted to amend "cavalierly" to say: "It wasn't taken as seriously as it could have been." But, he said, that changed with the 1996 appointment of Bernard Rostker to head the Pentagon's probe.
Department of Veteran's Affairs doctors also have failed to believe veterans are sick, Schwarzkopf said. The chemical weapons incident involved Pfc. David Fisher of the 3rd Armored Division, who was crawling through a destroyed Iraqi bunker when he came into contact with munitions that blistered his upper arm. Schwarzkopf was told of Fisher's case on March 3, 1991, in a field report from Army VII Corps officers.
"CINC (commander in chief Schwarzkopf) did not want us to make a big deal out of one soldier suffering chemical agent burns," the report says. "Don't deny the report to the press." But in Senate testimony in January and February, Schwarzkopf passed up several opportunities to tell of it. "We never had a single report, number one, of verified chemicals and, number two, of anyone ever showing any symptoms consistent with nerve agent poisoning," he told the Armed Services Committee. He told the Veteran's Affairs Committee, "We never had a single symptom shown by any of our troops of known symptoms of any chemical contamination and I never received a single report of the Iraqi use of chemicals." Fisher was considered a confirmed mustard agent casualty by VII Corps, and chemical detection units found traces of blister compound on his clothes. But Schwarzkopf said the reports were conflicting.
"Yes, it was a chemical burn, no it wasn't a confirmed chemical burn," is how he describes information coming in from the field. "The final report we got back was that we can't confirm it was a chemical burn." Why didn't Schwarzkopf mention the case to Senators ? "I wish I had now," he said. "It wasn't a matter of it slipping my mind. I should have said it." Schwarzkopf said he has referred to the case "over and over again" in "private conversations" and in a 1993 letter to Rep. Lane Evans, D-IL.
Schwarzkopf also disputed that he ever told officers in 1991 not to treat the Fisher incident as a "big deal." He said there were "some misinterpretations of my remarks the first night." Schwarzkopf has been the target of veterans activists like Jim Brown, President of the Desert Storm Justice Foundation, who says the commanding general didn't react to warning signs.
Brown said the Fisher incident and other warnings should have made the brass more cautious about Khamisiyah, an Iraqi ammo dump that, when blown up by U.S. troops on March 4, might have exposed 100,000 to chemical agents. Schwarzkopf said additional protective measures were not ordered because there was no "smoking gun". Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said Sunday that "although neither we nor the Presidential Advisory Committee can explain what causes the illness that some veterans are suffering, we are working hard to provide the best medical care we can and to conduct research that will help us answer remaining questions."