I.  The Fox Alert (February 25)

1.  The Initial Alert

Shortly after the 6:00 PM alert, at 7:08 PM on the 25th, the Task Force Ripper Fox vehicle (Figure 8)[45] alerted to the possible presence of a blister agent.[46] This Fox awaited Iraq’s possible counterattack positioned with the 3d Tank Battalion in a stationary position about one kilometer northwest of the air base. GySgt Grass, the Fox commander, and the driver were in MOPP-2 on the vehicle’s roof, while the MM-1 mass spectrometer operator and alternate MM-1 operator (sometimes called the wheelman) were inside the vehicle when the MM-1 alerted. According to interviews, at the time of the alert the winds were northwesterly, through recollections of the wind speed varied from 10 to over 50 mph.[47]

Nevertheless, smoke from the oil well fires obscured everything, limiting visibility to a few feet. However, some reports state the Marines could observe flashes of weapons fire through the smoke. The Fox driver recalls an artillery round landed upwind approximately four kilometers away five to six minutes before the Fox alerted for blister agents.[48] GySgt Grass says fighting but no shelling occurred within those four kilometers.[49]

2.  Fox Alert Procedures[50]

The Fox’s primary chemical warfare agent detection system consists of the MM-1 Mobile Mass Spectrometer and an air-and-surface sampler. The MM-1’s most effective capability was to detect liquid chemical warfare agent contamination on the surface using the sampling wheel, but during the Gulf War it sometimes was used as a vapor detector. It is not optimized for this mission, nor is its alerting capability in this operating method as good as that of other chemical warfare agent detectors (e.g., the M43A1 chemical vapor detector).[51] The MM-1 continuously monitors samples passing through it, checking for the presence of chemical warfare agents identified on a pre-selected target list of 1 to 22 chemical compounds.

Figure 8. A Fox NBC Reconnaissance vehicle thumbnail

Figure 8. A Fox NBC Reconnaissance vehicle

According to the Fox wheelman, he and the MM-1 operator sat inside the Fox sampling the air when they saw the MM-1 screen flash an initial alert for an airborne chemical warfare agent. They called to the driver and GySgt Grass outside on the vehicle’s roof to get inside and close the hatches so they could engage the protective overpressure system. The Fox crew noted no characteristic chemical agents' odors and reported no symptoms or illness indicating chemical warfare agent exposure (e.g., watery eyes, runny nose, or breathing trouble).[52]

This initial Fox alert, however, does not verify the presence of a chemical warfare agent, since many chemical compounds, including common solvents, insecticides, riot control agents, hydrocarbons (e.g., oil well smoke and diesel fuel), and explosive fumes have the same or similar ions as the compounds on the chemical warfare agent target list and cause the MM-1 to issue false initial alerts.[53,54] The MM-1 operator must perform a spectrum analysis[55] to increase confidence in the detection of chemical warfare agent presence.[56,57]

Using procedures necessary to properly evaluate the sample for any suspected chemical warfare agent and assure battlefield contaminants (e.g., smoke, diesel exhaust, and oil) do not affect initial indications, an MM-1 operator takes several minutes to obtain spectrum results for analysis.[58] The MM-1 operator also should print a tape that saves the spectrum details as a hard copy historical record.[59] Should the properly performed spectrum analysis identify a chemical warfare agent, the MM-1 operator and Fox commander can be confident, though not certain, the agent is present.

In accordance with standard procedures, the MM-1 operator started a full spectrum analysis. Either during or immediately after the full spectrum procedure, the alarm ceased and the MM-1 returned to normal readings. The crew’s recollections of the results differ: GySgt Grass, the MM-1 operator, and the wheelman reported a spectrum confirmed chemical warfare agent presence, specifically sulfur mustard, while the driver said that while the MM-1 operator was changing methods, the alert ceased, precluding performing a spectrum analysis.[60]

3.  Reporting the Fox Alert

While the MM-1 operator performed this analysis, GySgt Grass reported the blister alert to the Task Force Ripper and the 3d Tank Battalion NBC officers. GySgt Grass remains certain he reported an S-mustard or sulfur mustard alert.[61] The MM-1 operator also believes the substance identified in the alert was S-mustard.[62] The Fox driver recalled the substance as lewisite.[63] The Task Force Ripper NBC officer thought lewisite caused the alert and said, if a mistake occurred in reporting the type of suspected chemical warfare agent, he was at fault. He deferred to GySgt Grass because he was present during the alert and the officer was not.[64]

On notice of the alert, the Task Force Ripper NBC officer immediately attempted to determine the wind speed and direction to alert units downwind of the Fox. For a reason he could not identify, he was unable to ascertain any wind speed or direction, so he put the entire Task Force at MOPP-4 and ordered each battalion to begin local testing in each of its three companies with M256 detector kits.[65] In 1994, the Task Force Ripper NBC officer drew the diagram shown in Figure 9,[66] illustrating at least 12 companies (3 per battalion) and an artillery battalion surrounding the area in which the Fox alerted for chemical warfare agents.

Figure 9. Task Force Ripper deployment at 7:08 PM as drawn by Task Force Ripper NBC officer thumbnail

Figure 9. Task Force Ripper deployment at 7:08 PM as drawn by Task Force Ripper NBC officer

Without stating a possible chemical warfare agent attack had occurred, the Task Force NBC officer directed the Task Force operations officer to use the radio to order all units to MOPP-4. He wanted to avoid panic but ensure the Marines took protective measures.[67] While the log only indicates they went to MOPP-4, the message left many listeners with the impression an actual chemical warfare agent vapor attack had occurred.[68]

Each Task Force Ripper unit reported the details of the blister agent alert differently. (Tab E contains these units’ log reports.) Oddly, although the Fox was deployed with the 3d Tank Battalion, this battalion’s logs do not have an entry noting this alert.[69] Many entries from other units designate lewisite, not S-mustard, possibly caused by the discrepancy between GySgt Grass’s and the Task Force Ripper NBC officer’s reports.[70]

4.  Additional Testing and Attempts to Locate the Source of the Alert

Most of the unit logs report an all clear announcement within 10 to 12 minutes (7:18 to 7:20 PM) after the initial Fox alert.[71] This is difficult to understand because it takes 15 minutes to properly use an M256 test kit to test for nerve and blister agents and up to 25 minutes for blood agents.[72] United Nations inspectors found no blood agents in Iraq’s inventory.[73] Both the Task Force Ripper and 3d Tank Battalion NBC officers state individual units completed M256 tests after the Fox alert, and neither Marine can explain how the all-clear could have sounded 10 to 12 minutes after MOPP-4 was ordered. They are sure, however, the fully performed tests all proved negative, and that before returning to MOPP-2 the unit performed selective unmasking. At Task Force Ripper Headquarters, the NBC officer ordered two M256 tests to be performed 10 minutes apart. When both tested negative for chemical warfare agents and selective unmasking produced no symptoms, he ordered a return to MOPP-2,[74] perhaps as early as 7:35 PM. The 3d Tank Battalion logs show this unit unmasking beginning at 7:59 PM, however we do not know if this was in response to the Fox alert.[75]

While all Task Force Ripper units tested with M256 kits, the Fox crew attempted to locate the source of the original alert. Under normal circumstances, the Fox would systematically search the surrounding area to attempt to find additional evidence of any liquid chemical warfare agent contamination. NBC units’ training includes locating and isolating a contaminated area and establishing routes around it until decontamination or dissipation renders the area safe for normal operations. Both mustard and lewisite are persistent liquid agents,[76] so the Fox crew hoped it could identify the source. Several operational circumstances limited the search. The oil field smoke made identifying friendly and enemy vehicles very difficult. The Fox looks like a Soviet-made, Iraqi Army BTR-60 Armored Personnel Carrier and there were concerns Marines might mistake it for an enemy vehicle. To avoid this possibility, a security escort protected the Task Force Ripper Fox vehicle during most of the ground war. Just before the alert, the security detail left the Fox to engage in a firefight with Iraq’s forces, limiting the area the Fox could search safely. Consequently, the Fox searched only the area immediately around the air base and did not identify the source of the alert in this area.[77]

Persistent chemical warfare agents (e.g., mustard and lewisite), the agents to which the Fox alerted, leave a detectable residue for some time after an attack (see Table 1). Both Sulfur mustard (S-mustard or HD) and lewisite (L) are liquid blister agents with similar characteristics.[78] A drop of either liquid on exposed skin causes large blisters to form. Inhaling tiny droplets scars the lungs. Blister agents on the battlefield can create hazardous puddles of liquid agent capable of causing casualties for days after an attack.[79]

Table 1. Chemical warfare agent symptoms and characteristics[80]

Types of Agents
Rate of Action
Vapor Aerosol
10 min to 24 hrs
2 hr to 3 days
Very Quick
Eyes, Lungs
Eyes, Skin, Mouth
2 days to 1 week
2 days to wks
Eyes, Lungs
Eyes, Skin, Mouth
1 to 10 min
10 min to 1 hr
3 days to 1 wk
Eyes, Skin, Lungs
1 to 3 days
Eyes, Skin, Lungs
Eyes, Skin, Mouth
Very Quick
1 to 10 min
10 min to 1 hr
Very Quick
Eyes, Injured Skin


5.  The Fox Tape

The Fox crew printed a tape of either the initial alert or a full spectrum documenting the alert.[81] GySgt Grass recalled telling the 1st MARDIV NBC officer about this tape over the radio but says he did not show the tape to anyone until the night of February 28, when he gave this tape and several others to the 1st MARDIV NBC officer.[82] The Task Force Ripper and 1st MARDIV NBC officers recall events differently: they believe GySgt Grass immediately sent the tape to the Task Force Ripper NBC officer, who personally showed the tape to the 1st MARDIV NBC officer during a meeting sometime around 8:30 AM on February 26, 1991.[83]

At around 4:00 AM February 26, several hours before his meeting with the Task Force Ripper NBC officer, the 1st MARDIV NBC officer viewed a tape of another initial alert from a second Fox supporting the 1st MARDIV. Although some of this Fox’s crew believed the tape showed an alert for chemical warfare agent, the NBC officer believed the alert showed a false positive caused by the oil smoke from the burning Al Burqan oil field, basing this determination on the lack of other indicators of chemical warfare agent presence (e.g., enemy attacks or chemical warfare exposure symptoms).[84] With this recent false positive in mind, the 1st MARDIV NBC officer examined the Fox MM-1 tape from the Al Jaber incident. In the Al Jaber incident, no other evidence substantiated the alert (e.g., casualties or positive M256 tests), so the 1st MARDIV NBC officer concluded oil smoke also caused the Al Jaber incident, basing his assessment on the lack of other indications of chemical warfare exposure, but not anything on the tape itself, as this officer had no expertise or experience with the Fox vehicle.[85]

GySgt Grass and the Task Force Ripper NBC officer do not agree with the 1st MARDIV NBC officer’s oil smoke assessment. GySgt Grass has stated the Fox repeatedly detected smoke from the oil fires at a low level. He assigned the label "Unknown 1" to oil fires in the spectrometer and remembered this alert differed from the normal screen image of oil fire ion activity. He also stated this alert was unlike the readings of exhaust smoke that produced "Fat, Oil, Wax" alerts.[86] The Task Force Ripper NBC officer accepted GySgt Grass’s assessment based on Grass’s expertise with the Fox vehicle.

At the time of the Gulf War, procedures to analyze and archive Fox tapes were not established.[87] Unfortunately, the whereabouts of the Al Jaber Fox tape are unknown. The 1st MARDIV NBC officer destroyed the tape either on February 26 or later, as he considered this alert a false positive and saw no need to keep the tape.[88]

6.  Other Relevant Log Entries

The 3d Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment (3/11) command chronology reports at 8:30 PM February 25, the 1st MARDIV reported the blister agent alert was a false alarm.[89] According to the Task Force Ripper NBC officer, a higher echelon unit, the I Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters, not the 1st MARDIV, made this pronouncement. The Task Force Ripper and 1st MARDIV NBC officers wondered how higher headquarters personnel could so determine from the rear area.[90] It didn’t matter though, because based on the negative M256 results the Task Force NBC officer already had decided there was no chemical warfare threat to the task force and therefore the Marines did not need to stay in MOPP-4.

One additional report of possible chemical warfare agent presence came from the 1st Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment (1/12), assigned to the 11th Marine Regiment supporting Task Forces Xray and Taro. A 1/12 command chronology entry states that on February 26 at 2:20 AM the Task Force Ripper Fox vehicle reported lewisite vapor.[91] However, the Task Force Ripper NBC officer stated there was only one Task Force Ripper Fox alert during the ground war, at 7:30 PM on February 25.[92] This is consistent with all of GySgt Grass’s testimonies and statements. He never reported detecting any lewisite and discussed only his Fox vehicle’s alert for mustard near Al Jaber. This 2:20AM command chronology reference may be an alert by Task Force Papa Bear not Task Force Ripper. For further information see Incident M in the "11th Marines" Case Narrative.[93]

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