Washington, DC – The number of U.S. troops exposed to nerve gas after the first gulf war was underestimated because of flaws in how troops were studied, government investigators have concluded.
According to a congressional memo obtained by The Kansas City Star, computer models used to determine the extent of sarin gas exposure were inaccurate and incomplete.
Troops were exposed to sarin, a toxic nerve agent, when a missile arsenal at Khamisiyah in southeastern Iraq was blown up in March 1991. Over the years, the military has raised its estimate of the number of exposed troops from a few hundred to more than 100,000.
Now the General Accounting Office is expected to say that even that estimate is inadequate.
On Monday, the GAO is set to tell a congressional panel that the computer models, developed by the Department of Defense and the CIA, did not take weather patterns into account. The models also underestimated the height of the plumes sent skyward when the arsenal was destroyed, the memo stated.
Defense and CIA “modeling underestimated the extent of U.S. troop exposure since the modeling was not accurate enough to draw conclusions,” the memo stated. The memo did not give a specific number of troops exposed.
A Pentagon spokesman said the department did not comment on active GAO investigations. The GAO also declined to comment.
The GAO finding is certain to be embraced by gulf war veterans and medical researchers who contend that events like that at Khamisiyah are behind the mysterious sickness known as gulf war syndrome.
Upon returning from the 1991 war with Iraq, thousands of veterans complained of a variety of ailments, including headaches, memory loss, rashes, equilibrium problems and loss of motor skills.
Despite numerous medical studies, no specific causes have been identified, which has made it difficult for many to receive medical benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs for service-related injuries.
Among the possible causes cited have been desert diseases and parasites; pollution from burning oil wells; the depleted uranium used in armaments; sand; and incidents in which chemical or biological agents were released when Iraq’s stockpiles were bombed during the war or destroyed afterward.
“The modeling is flawed and has been used to say that exposure in the first gulf war could not have caused long-term illness,” said Steve Robinson, executive director of National Gulf War Resources Center. “It should be presumed that if you’re a veteran who was at Khamisiyah and you have an illness related to exposure to sarin, that exposure should be covered.”
Jim Benson, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said that VA records indicate that more than 145,000 troops were in the vicinity of Khamisiyah and may have been exposed to low levels of sarin.
He said the VA had received 54,000 claims related to exposure at the munitions site. It has granted 41,000 and denied 7,000, he said. Others are pending.
The GAO will present its findings at a hearing before the national security subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Reform. Its chairman, Republican Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, has been one Congress’ leading investigators of the causes behind gulf war illness.
Lawrence Halloran, the subcommittee staff director and counsel, said the GAO findings revealed “too many questions, too many variables and too many guesses” about whether troops were exposed to toxic chemicals.
“What it means is that if you served in theater in the gulf war, there is a substantial probability that you were exposed to low levels of chemical weapons,” he said.
After the gulf war ended in 1991, U.S. troops blew up ammunition bunkers at Khamisiyah on March 4 and March 10. Some bunkers contained chemical-warfare-tipped rockets.
The United Nations Special Commission on Iraq subsequently found that many of the rockets contained sarin, a colorless and odorless but extremely toxic gas. It disrupts the nervous system and can paralyze the muscles around the lungs.
Some researchers who have studied gulf war veterans say medical evidence indicates that low-level exposure to sarin can lead to brain damage.
For years, however, the Pentagon denied that troops had been exposed to toxic chemicals during the war or that it was factor in war-related illnesses. But in 1996, the military acknowledged that troops had been exposed to low levels of sarin.
The CIA also revealed that it had known about the presence of chemical weapons at Khamisiyah as early as 1984. In 1997, the agency apologized to gulf war veterans who may have been exposed to toxic chemicals that it had long known about.
“The question of the extent of sarin exposure among our troops in the first gulf war is a key issue in understanding what made 100,000 gulf war veterans chronically ill from the war,” said Robert Haley, a gulf war illness researcher and a professor of internal medicine and epidemiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.