D. Lessons Learned
Part of the mission of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses is working to assure future force protection by recommending changes in equipment, policies, and procedures. While analyzing the evidence on 11th Marines NBC incidents, investigators developed suggestions that may help the Department of Defense and the Marine Corps improve future NBC protection.
1. Procedures and Discipline for NBC Alerts
Many witnesses interviewed noted that some units sometimes failed to apply proper procedures and discipline in handling chemical alerts. In particular, they:
- Broadcast "gas, gas, gas" and similar alerts over tactical radio networks without clear evidence of a chemical attack (for example, when observing incoming fire at a distance); and
- Failed to note "who, what, where, and when" in initiating or passing NBC alerts.
Consequently, some units had no choice but to increase their protective postures to MOPP Level 4 as a precaution. They often did not know if the triggering "threat" was upwind, nearby or actually chemical. Had the Gulf War happened in warmer weather, inappropriate protective posture increases might have had a much greater impact on operations and could have contributed to heat stress casualties.
US forces in Operation Desert Storm had established procedures for reporting and disseminating alerts based on confirmed chemical attacks. (See NBC Reports described in Tab A.) They had no procedures, however, for reporting precautionary increases in protective posture based on sighting incoming fire, unusual clouds, etc. Consequently, some Marines used the "gas, gas, gas" warning to their unit comrades. This warning was passed to other units by radio operators, sometimes without direction from senior unit command or operations officers. For example, one witness observed that any lance corporal that smelled something or saw unusual smoke could get on the radio and cause the Marines to go to MOPP Level 4.
Conversely, to reduce the impact of chemical warnings that they could not evaluate, some commanding officers eventually required their personal approval for their unit to respond to NBC alerts from anyone but higher headquarters or their own Marines. This could have reduced their units NBC readiness in the face of real chemical threats.
Investigators offer the following suggestions to address these problems:
- Develop separate procedures for situations in which someone perceives a chemical threat from ambiguous indications. This would permit the affected unit to increases its local protective posture as a precaution, advise other units and echelons of this action, but not trigger inappropriate responses until NBC personnel could evaluate the threat. These procedures should clearly distinguish precautionary action from warnings based on confirmed chemical threats.
- Whether the result of precautionary alerts or detection of real chemical warfare agent, all personnel in a position to radio NBC alerts to other units should use a common format for alert dissemination. This format should include the initiating unit, the action taken, the cause of the alert, the location, and the time. Posting a simple format on or near appropriate tactical radios might help assure compliance under the pressure of combat. This system would compliment the existing NBC Reports initiated primarily by NBC personnel and help assure things do not get out of hand before such NBC experts can bring their judgment to bear.
2. Using NBC Equipment
As previously noted, personnel sometimes used NBC detection equipment in ways for which it was not designed or optimized. In particular, both the CAM and the Fox reconnaissance vehicle were mainly used to "sniff" ambient air some distance from the ground. Both of these equipment models were optimized to detect CWA at close range (and consequently higher concentrations). The CAM was designed to sort contaminated from uncontaminated personnel and vehicles. The Fox was developed to map out and mark terrain contaminated with persistent agent. Neither piece of equipment was optimized to provide initial chemical attack warning.
Because of trust in "new" technology equipment, Marines sometimes relied on devices considerably less sensitive than chemical agent detectors built specifically to sample ambient air. In the case of the Fox vehicle, the threshold for detection in the "air-hi" mode was higher than the agent concentration that would cause casualties. In the face of an actual chemical attack, relying on the Fox as a substitute for other devices could result in missed early warnings and increased chemical casualties. Marines had inadequate understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the various chemical warfare agent detectors, partly because the Marine Corps fielded some of these devices shortly before the ground campaign and partly because of operations in levels of pollution unanticipated by equipment designers.
Investigators suggest this action:
- Since the Gulf War, most chemical agent detectors have improved, with additional improvements expected in the future. Hardware upgrades should be accompanied by a better understanding by combat personnel of device capabilities relative to alternative detectors. NBC personnel should be most knowledgeable of the details, but rank-and-file Marines also must know better what they can expect from the NBC detection equipment they might use.
- DoD should expedite work on a chemical agent monitor to replace the M8 that can detect nerve and mustard agents at low concentrations in ambient air but rejects registering false positives for common battlefield interferents.
3. Control of NBC Alerting
During the ground campaign, as presumed "false alarms" for chemical agents accumulated, the commanding officers of the 5/11 and the 3/12 put in place procedural "fire breaks" to control reaction to NBC alerts. Increases in protective posture required CO authorization if an alert came from outside the unit or its higher headquarters. The other battalions generally continued to respond to external alerts by automatic increases in protective posture.
Both approaches have potential drawbacks. In the heat of battle, commanding officers may not always be available to make timely protective posture decisions. Any delay in precautionary measures could risk chemical warfare agent exposure and casualties. Conversely, indiscriminate response to alerts of unknown origin may cause units to suffer degraded performancea problem that gets worse with each increase in MOPP level. The time it takes to upgrade protective posture also can rob tactical momentum and consequently increase threats from enemy engagement.
- The Marine Corps should put in place additional limits on the authority to initiate protective posture increasesat least until enemy employment of chemical weapons has been confirmed. Authority for directing protective posture increases based on NBC alerts radioed from outside a units chain of command should be restricted to the commanding officer, executive officer, on-duty operations officer, and, in the absence of these individuals, the NBC officer. Trained NBC personnel, of course, would continue to bear special responsibility for evaluating threats and advising command and operations personnel. This arrangement would avoid relying solely on the commanding officer to make decisions.
- Radio operators should not pass on NBC alert messages without explicit direction from command, operations, or duty watch officers.
4. Documenting NBC Incidents
This and other investigations have brought into sharp focus the strengths and weaknesses of NBC documentation practices in the Gulf War. Investigators often faced inadequate or conflicting information on NBC incidents and other issues of significance for veterans health. The Marine Corps practice of requiring regular unit chronologieswith detailed documentation as attachmentshelped greatly and served as a solid foundation for recreating a sequence of chemical incidents for the 11th Marines. Often, however, detail was scant, and witnesses had difficulty recalling additional information.
Post-war interviews by Captain T. F. Manley, USMC, covered chemical defense issues days after the end of the Gulf War while Marine 1st Division participants memories were still fresh. Captain Manleys report (see Bibliography, TAB E), and transcripts of interviews on which that report was based, gave investigators valuable analytical input.
Perhaps only with hindsight can we now understand the importance of contemporary documentation of NBC (and other operational) activity. Current and future combat deployments may raise similar questions about long-term health impacts. Investigators understand that documenting action in the fury and fog of war is a challenge, and record keeping must not be allowed to jeopardize operational objectives. Still, the need and difficulty of reconstructing important details of combat events suggest the need for a reasonable enhancement of documentation procedures. With this in mind, investigators propose:
- The Marine Corps and Army should assess continuous audio recording of conversation and tactical radio traffic in fixed or mobile command posts during combat operations. Operations personnel should use these recordings to register comments and observations and help put ongoing activity in context. These tapes should be preserved and controlled as official documentation and archived.
- The Services should provide operations personnel with enhanced procedures emphasizing the need for basic detail in recording NBC alerts and incidents. Logs of incoming radio traffic should identify the sender.
- Whenever possible, Fox crews should take detailed MM1 spectra when a chemical warning registers on the equipment. The spectra should always be printed out on paper tape or saved in digital form. This data must be treated as essential historical evidence. Where possible, the originating unit should make and retain copies and forward the original through channels to a single collection point. The data should be controlled with chain of custody maintained.
- In the future, objective outside experts should debrief all who are associated with a suspected or confirmed NBC incidentmuch as Captain Manley did after the Gulf War. Debriefers should have detailed guidance on the information to collect and how to corroborate testimony. Interviewers should solicit personal journals and make copies of relevant information.
- In cases where personnel claim NBC exposure, but an NBC attack has not been confirmed, medical personnel should take extra care to assure timely evaluation and thorough documentation of symptoms. Medical interviews should be recorded (video preferred) and the recordings archived. Interviewers should solicit and document the names of others who might provide additional information on an incident. Documentation of NBC incidents should be kept indefinitely by respective medical units.
- The other Services should evaluate adopting the Marine Corps approach to maintaining detailed unit chronologies, particularly during preparation for and engagement in combat operations. This may require adjustment to current Service historical procedures.
5. Improving NBC Training
Implementation of the suggestions above would require changes to NBC-related training. Specifically:
- Reporting, retransmitting, and logging NBC incident alerts (communications and operations personnel).
- Authorizing initiation or retransmission of alerts (command, operations, and NBC officers).
- Capabilities, limitations, and appropriate use of the various NBC detectors (all deployable personnel).
- Special documentation, routing, and archiving requirements for NBC incident-related information (command, operations, NBC, Fox crew, medical, and historian personnel).
- Post-operation interviewing regarding suspected NBC incidents (selected personnel at time of requirement).
This case is still being investigated. As additional information becomes available, it will be incorporated. If you have records, photographs, recollections, or find errors in the details reported, please contact the DOD Persian Gulf Task Force Hot Line at 1-800-472-6719.
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