This Case Narrative details three significant events that occurred in and around the greater Al Jubayl area during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. These events are known as the "loud noise," "Scud impact," and "purple T-shirt" events. Also included is a short history of Al Jubayl, a discussion of the local environment in which military personnel lived and worked, and a synopsis of medical studies involving Seabees (naval personnel assigned to naval mobile construction battalions) from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 24 who reported experiencing post-war medical problems.

A. Loud Noise Events

Veterans who were in the Al Jubayl area during January 19-21, 1991, reported hearing loud noises and seeing bright flashes of light in the night sky. Some people attributed the loud noises and bright flashes to a chemical warfare agent attack on Al Jubayl by Iraq. Although veterans’ descriptions of what happened were generally consistent, they sometimes differed when identifying the specific day(s) in question. After the investigation began, we determined that the loud noises and bright flashes occurred during the early morning hours of January 19, 1991, and during the evening-early morning hours of January 20-21, 1991, but the primary cause for concern were the incidents that occurred on January 19, 1991. The anxiety caused by the start of the air war, coupled with the incidents in question, made it difficult for some veterans to discriminate among the dates in question. Therefore, the investigation included all the incidents that occurred during the entire three-day period. For clarity, in this narrative we discuss the events of January 19 and those of January 20-21 separately.

The first loud noise event was a series of incidents that occurred within a relatively short period (3:32-6:30 AM) during the early morning of January 19, 1991. The first incident occurred at 3:32 AM when the population of Al Jubayl heard a loud noise throughout the entire Al Jubayl area. Veterans described the noise as a single explosion, as two explosions, and as a sonic boom. Fearing an attack, local commanders ordered their units to implement General Quarters. Some unit commanders ordered their personnel to put on their protective clothing while other unit commanders refrained from doing so because of shortages of protective clothing. Shortly after the loud noise, the Rear Area Operations Center in Al Jubayl began receiving reports of other incidents in the area. These other incidents included: locations being fired upon; detections of chemical warfare agents; sighting of a white cloud and mist in the air; a flash of light or fireball in the sky; and a propeller-driven aircraft flying over the area. Collectively, these observations caused some veterans to believe that Iraq’s military forces or an Iraq-sponsored terrorist group had attacked Al Jubayl with chemical warfare agents. In response, nuclear, biological, and chemical teams tested for the presence of chemical warfare agents. Although some locations initially reported positive test results for nerve agent and blister agent, all later tests were negative.

We identified Coalition aircraft as the source of the loud noise. The 552d Computer Group at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, analyzed electronic data recorded during the Gulf War aboard Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft. The data showed that two Coalition aircraft exceeded the speed of sound causing two almost simultaneous sonic booms as they flew over the city of Al Jubayl at 3:27 AM—approximately the same time troops on the ground heard and reported the loud noise. We have assessed the likelihood that chemical warfare agents were present in Al Jubayl during the morning of January 19, 1991, as unlikely.

The second event occurred the following night (January 20-21, 1991), when more explosion-like noises occurred and units in the Al Jubayl area again increased their levels of alert and protective clothing posture. Nuclear, biological, and chemical detection teams checked for the presence of chemical warfare agents with negative results. At about the time of the explosion-like sounds, Iraq launched a Scud missile toward Dhahran. The missile flying over Al Jubayl at supersonic speeds most likely caused the explosion-like noise. There was also a high probability that a Patriot missile fired from a missile battery defending Dhahran intercepted and destroyed the Scud. Although numerous command log entries and the Scud launch data confirmed a Scud launch, there was no record of an impact site. We concluded that a Scud missile probably caused the explosion-like sounds. We assessed the likelihood that chemical warfare agents were present in Al Jubayl during the evening-early morning of January 20-21, 1991, as unlikely.

After we published the original Al Jubayl case narrative on August 13, 1997, two private citizens proposed two different scenarios that they believed could relate to the loud noise on January 19, 1991. In the first scenario, they claimed Iraq’s forces launched a Styx missile from a fast patrol boat. Aimed at Al Jubayl and armed with a chemical warhead, the missile caused the loud noise when it detonated. In the second scenario, Iraq’s aircraft penetrated Saudi Arabian airspace, flew to Al Jubayl, and sprayed a dusty mustard chemical warfare agent over the city. Iraq’s fighter aircraft providing aircover for the spraying aircraft caused the loud noise.

The Center for Naval Analyses assisted in our investigation of the first scenario by reviewing naval operations records from the war for any report of a suspicious vessel (or vessels) operating off the coast of Saudi Arabia at the time of the loud noise on January 19. Finding none, the Center analyzed the capabilities of the surveillance systems used to provide the Coalition’s fleet with early attack warnings. The primary systems were those aboard the United States Navy’s P-3 Orion aircraft and Nimrod aircraft from the United Kingdom. The Center considered the surveillance systems’ swath of coverage, the extent of the aircraft’s patrol area, and the position of the Coalition’s warships to determine if a vessel could have sailed down the coasts of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, launched an attack, escaped, and avoided detection. The Center determined that the probability of such an event occurring during the war was highly unlikely. We reviewed the information provided by the Center for Naval Analyses together with other information obtained during the course of the investigation and concluded that a Styx missile attack against Al Jubayl on January 19 definitely did not occur.

Just as there were surveillance systems watching the approaches to Coalition warships, there were also surveillance systems monitoring the flight activity of both the Coalition’s air forces and Iraq’s air forces. The United States Air Force’s Airborne Warning and Control System was the primary airborne system used during the war. The 552d Air Control Wing at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, reviewed the data recorded during the war to determine if any unidentified aircraft penetrated Saudi Arabian airspace during the early morning hours of January 19, 1991, and the likelihood that Iraq’s aircraft could have entered Saudi Arabian airspace while avoiding detection. The 552d Air Control Wing’s analysts subsequently determined that: 1) the only aircraft airborne at the time of the loud noise event were Coalition aircraft, and 2) that it would have been highly unlikely for Iraq’s aircraft to have penetrated Saudi Arabian airspace and avoided detection. We subsequently concluded that an aircraft attack on Al Jubayl on January 19, 1991, definitely did not occur.

Our analysis of information collected during this investigation of the loud noise event combined with information obtained during our original investigation indicated that Iraq definitely did not attack Al Jubayl on the day in question. We also found no additional information during this latest investigation that conclusively proved or disproved the presence of chemical warfare agents during the period of January 19-21, 1991. Consequently, our assessment is that the presence of chemical warfare agents in Al Jubayl during the period January 19-21, 1991, is unlikely.

B. Scud Impact Event

On February 16, 1991, Iraq launched its 66th Scud missile of the war. The Scud (an Al Hussein variant) impacted in the waters of Al Jubayl harbor at approximately 2:00 AM. The Scud did not detonate and caused no equipment damage or injury to Coalition personnel. Eyewitnesses reported seeing an explosion that looked as if a Patriot missile intercepted the Scud. Although there was a Patriot missile battery near the harbor, it was not operational at the time. Salvage operations of the Scud missile began on February 22, 1991, and ended on March 2, 1991, with the recovery of the warhead. During the salvage operations and subsequent efforts to make the warhead safe, explosive ordnance disposal personnel found no evidence of chemical warfare agents—the missile’s warhead contained high explosives. Consequently, our assessment is that the Scud definitely did not contain a chemical warfare agent.

C. Purple T-shirt Event

On March 19, 1991, a cloud of noxious fumes enveloped seven Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 24. The Seabees sought medical attention after the fumes caused acute short-term symptoms including burning throats, eyes, and noses, and difficulty in breathing. The Seabees reported that portions of their brown T-shirts turned purple, as did parts of their combat boots. None of the seven saw the origin of the cloud, but all believed the cloud came from one of the industrial plants near Camp 13. A master chief equipment operator who witnessed the event positively identified a fertilizer plant located near the camp as the source of the noxious cloud. Five of the seven exposed Seabees immediately sought medical attention, removed their contaminated clothing, showered, changed into clean clothing, and returned to work with no further symptoms. The remaining two Seabees donned their protective clothing and continued to work without interruption and without developing severe symptoms.

According to a Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 24 medical corpsman, testing of the T-shirts to determine what may have caused them to change color began shortly after the incident. Although no record was found, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 24’s medical personnel recalled that they collected the T-shirts, bagged them, and turned them over to a group of unnamed Marine officials. Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 24 never received a written report of the analysis, but learned via telephone that an exposure to ammonia caused the color change.

In July 1993, the US Army Materiel Test Directorate at White Sands Missile Range tested a T-shirt with small holes on its front and back. The origin of the T-shirt is unknown, but we do not believe the T-shirt was one of those that turned purple. The Directorate tested the T-shirt because it may have been worn during the Gulf War and was made from similar material (fabric and dyes) as the shirts that turned purple. The Test Directorate could not determine what might have caused the Seabees’ shirts to change color, but they surmised from a previous study that some type of an acid caused the holes. Natick Laboratories conducted another analysis in May 1994. As in the previous study by the Army’s Materiel Test Directorate, the T-shirts tested were not among the shirts worn during the purple T-shirt incident, but the material (fabric and dyes) was the same or similar type as those worn during the Gulf War. The Natick report stated that ammonia (a suspected cause) would not have changed the color of the T-shirts. Only a strong oxidizer like nitric or sulfuric oxide (a common by-product of some industrial operations) could have turned the shirts purple. No combat boots were tested. Our assessment is that no chemical warfare agent was present in Camp 13 and the surrounding area on March 19, 1991, and chemical warfare agents did not cause the T-shirts to change color.

D. Environmental Factors

The purple T-shirt event highlighted the heavily industrialized environment of Al Jubayl. Its heavy concentration of industries possibly exposed personnel who lived and worked in Al Jubayl to a variety of industrial chemicals. During interviews of personnel stationed in Al Jubayl, we asked for each person's impression of Al Jubayl and the surrounding area. We received both positive and negative comments. To provide as clear a picture as possible, we have included a section in this case narrative devoted to discussing Al Jubayl’s environment.

During the pre-deployment phase of Operation Desert Shield, military planners became aware of the heavy concentration of industry in Al Jubayl. The large number of industrial complexes located within a relatively small geographic area was of special concern, as several of these facilities used, produced, or stored industrial chemicals that could pose a serious health risk to military personnel. The large number of personnel and amount of equipment that arrived and departed through Al Jubayl compounded the problem.

Because of these concerns, military planners initiated several studies to determine what hazards existed in Al Jubayl. The studies confirmed that the Saudi Arabian government had stringent environmental standards, similar to United States Environmental Protection Agency standards, in place long before the commencement of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In 1988, the United Nations Environment Program declared the city of Al Jubayl to be as clean as any comparable city in the world.

E. Medical Issues

Since the end of the Gulf War, several Seabees, primarily from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 24, have reported experiencing a variety of medical conditions that they attributed to their deployment to the Gulf. This has received national attention because the Seabees were from the same unit. Conclusions based on medical studies completed to date have been inconclusive and have not agreed on a likely cause for the Seabees’ ailments.

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