Pentagon officials have been concealing or ignoring evidence that tens of thousands of U.S. Persian Gulf War veterans were exposed to Iraqi chemical and biological weapons during the conflict, a Senate report released Wednesday contends.
Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which interviewed more than 600 veterans in preparing its report, demanded that the Pentagon declassify all information relating to the detection of chemical and biological agents.
Riegle recalled the Pentagon’s reluctance to release information on Agent Orange after the Vietnam War and raised doubts about the effectiveness of devices used in the field to detect the presence of chemical agents.
In a letter sent to Persian Gulf War veterans Wednesday, Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “There is no information, classified or unclassified, that indicates that chemical or biological weapons were used in the Persian Gulf.”
But veterans’ testimony in the Senate report suggests that chemical and biological contamination was widespread. Operation Desert Storm soldiers described 10 incidents of Iraqi rocket attacks that released noxious fumes or set off chemical agent alarms, as well as several encounters with irritating chemicals in the air. About 12,000 veterans have reported symptoms ranging from skin irritation to memory loss, claiming that they are victims of “Gulf War Syndrome.”
In one incident, eyewitnesses recounted their experiences during the early hours of Jan. 19, 1991, when an explosion near the port of Jubayl in Saudi Arabia sent U.S. troops in a naval construction battalion scurrying for cover. When soldiers emerged from their bomb shelter, some reported a numbness or a burning sensation on their skin. One soldier who tested the area for chemical agents that evening reported that two of three tests had positive readings.
At a hearing of Riegle’s committee Wednesday, Pentagon officials said Iraq did not deploy chemical or biological toxins, even though hundreds of chemical alarms were triggered during the war. In some cases, the sensors may have malfunctioned, the officials said, and in others the alarms were discounted after further review.
Defense Undersecretary Edwin Dorn said there is some concern, however, about the possibility that soldiers could have been exposed to low levels of chemical warfare agents or fallout in Kuwait and southern Iraq as a result of Allied bombing of Iraqi military installations.
Riegle accused the Pentagon of concealing or suppressing reports of toxic exposures during the conflict, saying the military Establishment has an “institutional difficulty in coming to terms with grievous decision errors. . . . I’ve seen our government lie to us before in other war situations.”
Army chemical data included in the Senate report indicates that U.S. chemical detectors may not have been sensitive enough to register very low levels of certain agents, such as the nerve gas sarin, which can still be harmful if soldiers are exposed to it over long periods. Last July, the Czech minister of defense announced that a chemical decontamination unit from his country had detected low levels of sarin in Saudi Arabia early in the Gulf War.
Symptoms commonly associated with sarin include respiratory problems and chest pain, which many veterans reported.
Dorn acknowledged that physicians have been unable to diagnose symptoms of at least 2,000 veterans, many of whom claim to have Gulf War Syndrome.
“I understand the fear and the frustration that many veterans are experiencing,” Dorn said. “They are sick, and their doctors can’t offer definitive answers.”
One of those who has suffered since the war is Dean V. Lundholm Jr. of Live Oak, Calif., who served with an Army National Guard unit. Since returning from Saudi Arabia in 1991, Lundholm has been so beset by respiratory and digestive problems that he has been unable to work.
“I served my country willingly and proudly,” said Lundholm, who founded the California Assn. of Persian Gulf Veterans, at a National Institutes of Health hearing last month. “But I now expect my country to treat me and other war vets with respect and concern. And that means we vets should get information, diagnosis and treatment about our health status.” Copies of Lundholm’s testimony were distributed at Wednesday’s hearing.
Recently, the Pentagon has also considered the possibility that experimental vaccines administered to soldiers to combat chemical weapon attacks may have led to some veterans’ symptoms.
A panel of experts led by Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg is re-examining evidence of chemical weapon exposure for the Defense Department and is expected to report its findings next month, Dorn said.