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:

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:

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:

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 performance—a 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.

Investigators suggest:

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 chronologies—with detailed documentation as attachments—helped 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 Manley’s 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:

5. Improving NBC Training

Implementation of the suggestions above would require changes to NBC-related training. Specifically:

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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