TomPaine.com: The General Accounting Office (GAO) just issued a report saying the Pentagon’s estimate for the numbers of troops exposed to Iraqi nerve gas in the 1991 Gulf War was not reliable, and if anything, vastly underestimated exposure levels. What did the GAO study and why was this so important to Gulf War veterans?
Robinson: Well, what they studied was the ways the Department of Defense (DoD) goes back into time to develop and report on events. In the case of the Gulf War, the Department of Defense went back seven-to-10 years after the event occurred to try and estimate what people were exposed to and how much. And when they made their conclusions, they used that information as if it were hard science to turn over to the Department of Veterans Affairs. And the Department of Veterans Affairs used that hard science to say Gulf War veterans weren’t ill as a result of exposures.
TP.c: What in particular were they studying? Wasn’t there an incident after the combat ended, where Americans blew up a large cache of Iraqi munitions that included a sizeable amount of nerve gas?
Robinson: Absolutely. The site you’re referring to is called Khamisiyah. Khamisiyah was a chemical weapons storage facility. Interestingly enough, as time has given us the opportunity to understand how everything happened, the CIA knew that Khamisiyah was a known chemical weapons storage facility in the late ’80s.
Then in the first Gulf War, apparently that information wasn’t shared with [Operation Desert Storm Commander] Gen. [Norman] Schwarzkopf, or at least that’s his recollection. Then after the first Gulf War, marines from the 82nd Airborne conducted a demolition at this place known as Khamisiyah and they went on to other places. Remember Khamisiyah was just one place, one demolition event. There were approximately 100 other places like Khamisiyah, and there were at least 900 other places that were bombed in the pre-war, during-war and post-war phase of the last Gulf War. And many of those places were also known chemical weapons storage facilities.
TP.c: So what actually happened then? The Iraqi weapons were blown up or destroyed and the smoke and residue went into the atmosphere and blew back on U.S. troops?
Robinson: That is exactly why DoD went back and modeled this event, because they wanted to prove that the exposures that occurred at Khamisiyah couldn’t have possibly made veterans ill. But what the GAO report finds is that there’s no way for them to accurately estimate what happened because there was such a lack of data. But the theory is that at this one particular place, engineers conducted a demolition operation against 122-millimeter rockets containing the nerve agent sarin, and when that sarin was exploded it went into the atmosphere.
Now the first thing that DoD said, which was in absence of science, was “Well, nobody died immediately after that event. So therefore you could not have been exposed to anything that made you sick.” But science that will be revealed on June 16th, at the Department of Veterans Affairs, says that low-level exposure to chemical warfare agents can in fact cause long-term illnesses.
TP.c: So how many soldiers were possibly exposed?
Robinson: In the first Gulf War, based on DoD’s flawed modeling, they started off and said, “Well, we think 100 people may have been exposed.” And then they said, “Well, maybe 500 people were exposed.” And then said, maybe 1,000. And then they said, just as recently as about six months ago, that 140,000 people potentially may have been exposed. But what the GAO said was their modeling is inconsistent and flawed and lacked meteorological data for them to be able to reach those conclusions.
There was another model that was conducted by Lawrence Livermore [National Laboratory] and if you take the DoD model and the Lawrence Livermore model and combine them, then you’d have to add another 250,000 to the previous 140,000, so we’re looking at over 330,000 people that potentially were exposed.
TP.c: At this June meeting coming up at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), there’s going to be talk of what? Some scientific studies that….
Robinson: Yeah. In the past nine months since we have been kind of embroiled in the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq, science has come in — stacks and stacks of science has come in — that says things that veterans were exposed to in the first Gulf War are absolutely related to the illnesses that they suffer. And at the June 16th meeting of the VA Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illnesses, scientists from four major studies are going to reveal previously unknown information about what made veterans ill and how they scientifically can prove it.
Some of these studies are DoD-sponsored studies. In fact, one of the studies came from Aberdeen Proving Ground, so the revolution in terms of what did or did not happen in the first Gulf War, is about to be stood on its head with this science and the fact that the modeling conducted by the Department of Defense cannot rule in or rule out whether or not exposures made people sick.
TP.c: Well if the GAO report is correct, doesn’t it suggest that one element in what’s become known as Gulf War Syndrome could be the result of one of the largest friendly-fire accidents in recent U.S. military history?
Robinson: Absolutely, and we’ve been saying that all along. You know, the most troubling thing about this, as we’ve had the opportunity for time to pass, is we found out that the CIA knew this place was a known weapons storage facility in the late ’80s and somehow that information didn’t make it into the hands of Gen. Schwarzkopf and his military planners.
It’s a significant faux pas that information wasn’t passed along, and then soldiers, inadvertently, in the conduct of their duties, exposed potentially as many as 330,000 people.
TP.c: Well we known that so far, what is it, a quarter of a million veterans from that war have now been certified as disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs….
Robinson: Let me give you some statistics. I just got some new information that I have been tracking: There’s 697,000 who served in the first Gulf War; 320,000 veterans who deployed in the first Gulf War have sought medical treatment from the VA; 214,000 veterans who deployed to the first Gulf War have filed for a disability claim; 167,000 veterans who deployed to the first Gulf War have had their claim approved; 25,000 veterans who deployed have had their claim denied; 22,000 veterans have a claim pending; and potentially over 250,000 veterans must immediately be notified that they were also exposed at Kamisiyah — and those people will be eligible to file claims.
TP.c: So what happens next?
Robinson: What happens next is the GAO has made a recommendation that the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs presume that the illnesses that veterans suffer from are as a result of their wartime service. If he makes that recommendation, if he approves that and writes it into law, it means that a veteran no longer has to prove that something happened to him. He doesn’t have to prove that something during wartime experience made him ill.
What he does then is he goes into the Department of Veterans Affairs and he says, “I served in the first Gulf War and I was exposed potentially to sarin nerve gas.” And if the doctors find that he has one of the illnesses related to exposures to chemical warfare agents, it’s automatically assumed that he got it at Kamisiyah or one of those places like Kamisiyah.