Casualities of War

Digital Journalist

The sergeant was puzzled. His vision was dimming. His nose began to run and then there seemed weight on his chest and he struggled to breathe. His squad of riflemen deployed in the desert of southern Iraq watched in horror as their leader began vomiting before collapsing into a bundle of convulsions.

These are the telltale signs of nerve gas poisoning that could come from a tiny drop of Sarin on an exposed wrist. A listing of these effects are part of the lesson plan U.S. Marines were offering a group of journalists who may wind up on the battlefield if President George W. Bush launches Desert Storm II. The Pentagon offered to prepare reporters with a rough basic training program at Quantico, Va. starting last month.

Nerve gas – Sarin – has been in the arsenal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein at least since he ordered it used by his troops against ill-prepared Iranian forces after Iraq’s 1981 invasion. Hussein’s expertise in manufacturing and weaponizing Sarin makes it certain the nerve gas will be on the priority list of U.N. weapons inspectors now in Baghdad, according to US intelligence.

For President George Bush the Elder in 1991, his worst nightmare was the vision of American forces writhing from the effects of Sarin as they moved to oust Iraq from the tiny sheikdom of Kuwait.

Fear of media coverage of such nerve gas attacks may have led Bush to order a press blackout when allied troops began to roll on February 24,1991. “They didn’t want pictures in the living room of our troops being rocketed with Sarin,” said a senior general who helped plan Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s attack. “No pictures.”

Schwarzkopf as did most military planners doubted Hussein would use the nerve agent. He lacked an effective delivery system–122mm rockets–and an errant breeze could waft the vapor in the wrong direction. And, then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney promised a gas attack by Baghdad would produce an “overwhelming,” but unspecified U.S. response. The always uncool Vice President Dan Quayle piped up that Cheney was talking about using nuclear weapons on Hussein.

For whatever reason, Iraq never used one of its most potent “weapon of mass destruction,” resulting in a sigh of relief by both the political and military leadership of the Persian Gulf War.

But the terror weapon was unleashed–unwittingly–by U.S. Army engineers after most of the fighting was over. It produced the largest allied casualty list of the war. American taxpayers are financing more than $4 billion a year in compensation to Gulf War veterans and their families.

According the Central Intelligence Agency and the Army, 4.8 tons of Sarin nerve gas was released into the atmosphere in northern Iraq when engineers destroyed 1,610 Kaytusha rockets tipped with Sarin warheads. The first release– from 1,060 of the 122mm Soviet-made rockets– on March 4,1991 was limited because they were destroyed with explosives placed inside storage bunkers at a crossroads called Kamisiyah.

CIA and Army experts argued the bunkers kept most of the Sarin vapor out of the atmosphere. Worse however was a second engineer demolition of 550 Kaytushas on March 10. These rockets containing Sarin-filled warheads were destroyed in an open pit. More than 130,000 American troops were deployed within the 15 mile radius of the Sarin vapor cloud created by the March 10 blast.

Those units affected with troops in 1st Mechanized, 24th Mechanized, 82nd Airborne, 1st Armored, 3rd Armored and 1st Cavalry Divisions as well as smaller reserve and national guard units. The plume also covered sections of occupied Kuwait but no estimates of population were made by the CIA and Army.

Disclosure of the Sarin plume over U.S. troops came in 1996 when the administration of President Bill Clinton was still disputing both the cause and effects of the so-called Gulf War syndrome. Then, 8,000 veterans of Desert Storm had a collection of symptoms including fatigue, sore joints, sleeplessness, stomach problems and skin disorders.

Pentagon officials learned about the Sarin releases in 1994 but did not tell ailing veterans or the public about the plume of nerves until two years later. Just as smelly was Pentagon handling of Desert Storm records of detection of airborne poisons by U.S. units before the groundwar began. Defense officials blamed a malfunctioning hard drive for destroying two separate sets of chemical detections.

As the number of victims soared, the Pentagon insisted the Sarin releases were not a cause. Nerve gas dissipates within hours. But some critics, including Jim Tuite, a Senate investigator who helped stage the first Congressional hearings on the issue, had a different view.

Tuite has uncovered East german records of workers who handled stores of Sarin nerve gas. Low level exposures to the gas for years had given them the same sort of symptoms plaguing Gulf war veterans. And, Tuite argues other Iraqi chemical weapons were released into the air during a month of bombing Hussein’s storage areas and military factories.

Army doctors, the Department of Veterans Affairs and most of the U.S medical community continued for a decade to view the Gulf War syndrome as mysterious and unexplainable. So far, 167,000 men and women who served in the conflict have been granted various degrees of disability by the government along with different cash payments and pension rights. Today, they account for almost half of the disabled Gulf War vets who, along with their wives and children, get $370 million a month, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Paul Sullivan of the Gulf War Veterans association [National Gulf War Resource Center] says the cumulative total of men and women affected–veterans, active duty, national guard and reserve soldiers who served in the 1991 conflict–is closer to 200,000.

It wasn’t until this fall–11 years after the event–that the Veterans Affairs Department for the first time acknowledged toxic exposures as a cause of Gulf War illnesses. Two recent Pentagon studies finally reached the same conclusion: low does of Sarine exposure are linked to long-term neurological problems.

These concessions come after a pounding by Congress, the media and grassroots organizations such as Sullivan’s Gulf War group.

Still, there is no mention of Sarin it the latest Pentagon report on the Gulf war syndrome although another culprit has been pinpointed–dirty air.

“Many veterans of the Gulf War have expressed concern that their unexplained illnesses may result from their experiences in that war,” said Dr. William Wenkenwerder Jr., assistant defense secretary for health.

“Of primary concern,” for affected troops, Wenkenwerder said, “was poor air quality that was the result of several factors: blowing sand, emissions from petro-chemical complexes, civilian and military vehicle traffic and oil well fires in Kuwait.”

©2002 Patrick J. Sloyan
Contributing Editor

Patrick J. Sloyan won the Pulitzer prize for his coverage of Desert Storm while Senior Correspondent for Newsday. He wrote this article while a Fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation. Sloyan currently in writing a book on the seeds of the Vietnam War.

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