We investigated this issue to determine if 2d Reconnaissance Battalion Marines operating observation posts along Kuwait's border in early February 1991 developed blisters on their hands due to chemical warfare agent exposure. After thoroughly examining all available evidence, we assess it is unlikely chemical warfare agent exposure caused these blisters.
It is clear these Marines experienced symptoms that concerned them. The threat of chemical attack at the time of the Gulf War was real, and the blisters these Marines developed caused at least one unidentified corpsman to speculate that the blisters resulted from chemical warfare agent exposure. In addition, anecdotal evidence indicates a CAM alerted once for the possible presence of a blister agent, but subsequent tests proved negative. The blisters, the nurses' second-hand reports, and the single CAM alert constitute the only evidence available indicating a possible chemical warfare agent exposure.
The evidence that chemical warfare agents were not present is more substantial. There is no apparent explanation to account for the presence of chemical warfare agents in the company's area of operations. Additionally, the randomness with which the blisters affected Marines on different teams in different locations, while not affecting other Marines at the same places at the same time, is inconsistent with a chemical warfare incident.
Medical, NBC, and command personnel supporting the 2d Reconnaissance Battalion during the Gulf War would have known about an NBC incident in the battalion, because they would have treated the casualties, investigated the incident, and submitted NBC reports. Interviews with these experts revealed that very few knew anything about Marines with blistered hands, and those who were aware did not consider the Marines chemical warfare agent casualties. We were unable to locate any medical records, unit logs, or NBC reports indicating chemical warfare agents injured these Marines. In fact, the Fleet Hospital 15 admission logs, which were provided to us by the people who reported the incident, show that no 2d Reconnaissance Battalion Marines were admitted to the hospital for chemical warfare agent exposure.
The most compelling evidence to support our assessment is the opinion of a medical specialist with expertise in chemical warfare agent injuries, who separately evaluated each of the Marines in December 2000. He found these Marines' symptoms to be inconsistent with those associated with chemical warfare agent exposure, and believes it is unlikely mustard or any other chemical warfare agent caused the blisters.
We cannot categorically state that these Marines definitely were not exposed to chemical warfare agents. Such an assessment would require laboratory analysis of physical evidence from the site of suspected exposure (sand from the berm) and samples of urine, blood, and blister liquid taken when the injuries occurred. Such evidence was not available to our investigators because it was not collected at the time. However, the expert's opinion, combined with the lack of any corroborating evidence of chemical warfare agent exposure, lead us to assess that it is unlikely chemical warfare agents caused these Marines blisters.
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