On August 27, 1997, the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses published the original narrative detailing the circumstances surrounding the possible exposure to liquid mustard chemical warfare agent of a US soldier during the Gulf War. Since then the Presidential Special Oversight Board for Department of Defense Investigations of Gulf War Chemical and Biological Incidents (PSOB) and the General Accounting Office (GAO) have reviewed the narrative and provided comments to the Special Assistant. Both the PSOB and the GAO agreed with the original assessment based on information presented that an exposure to a chemical warfare agent was likely; however, both recommended additional investigation.
We investigated further as the PSOB and GAO suggested. New information about this incident includes reports on the location of the suspected bunker and when it was constructed. In the original investigation of this incident, we interviewed 11 people. For this follow-up investigation, we re-interviewed 4 people and conducted 20 new interviews. We identified 7 additional people to interview, but were unable to locate them. For the original narrative, we telephonically interviewed Colonel Dunn, the physician who examined Private First Class (PFC) Fisher and diagnosed the injury as an exposure to a chemical warfare agent; we interviewed him in person for this version. This narrative incorporates additional information obtained from PFC David Fisher. It also includes information obtained during interviews with medical and chemical warfare agent experts as well as with the soldiers who conducted the search and destroy mission with PFC Fisher.
B. Location of Incident
According to a VII Corps message, PFC Fishers reported exposure to liquid mustard chemical warfare agent occurred on March 1, 1991, in a bunker located near the Iraq-Kuwait border. Figure 2 shows the general area where the bunker reportedly was located.
Figure 2. Location of reported mustard exposure incident
Reports on the bunkers location vary, making its exact location difficult to determine; however, at the time of the incident, most of the reported locations were on Kuwaits side of the border near Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) coordinates QU 050 072. Figure 3 shows this location and others in detail. A VII Corps casualty report records another location for the bunkeron the Iraq-Kuwait border at UTM coordinates QU 003 023. We found no other information to support this location.
Figure 3. Locations associated with the reported mustard exposure
PFC Fishers unit conducted a search-and-destroy mission centered on UTM coordinates PU 995 047. A VII Corps report to US Army Central Command (ARCENT) listed the location of the incident in Iraq "W [west] of PU 995 047." The units mission was to destroy enemy vehicles and bunkers located within an area five kilometers east and west of UTM coordinates PU 995 047 and four kilometers north and south of the same coordinatesan 80 square kilometer area, shown as the shaded portion of Figure 3. PFC Fisher related he had checked out some 30 bunkers over three days before the diagnosis of his blister agent injury.
After medical personnel diagnosed PFC Fishers blisters as a chemical warfare agent exposure, two Fox vehicles went to find the bunker suspected of being the point of exposure. Although VII Corps reported to ARCENT that PFC Fisher would accompany the Fox vehicles to the suspect bunker when they searched the area, PFC Fisher did not accompany them to identify bunkers he had searched. ARCENT directed him not to accompany the vehicles, but rather to wait for a special chemical medical casualty team to examine him. The Fox vehicles searched the suspected area; one reported traces of distilled sulfur mustard and mustard-T mixture blister agent at a bunker located in Kuwait at UTM coordinates QU 050 072 . The second Fox failed to detect the presence of any chemical warfare agent at the same location. An after action report noted the bunker at UTM coordinates QU 053 072. A VII Corps journal entry concerning this activity noted a Fox vehicle had a weak HD [sulfur mustard] reading at the suspected bunker at UTM coordinates QU 053 027, which may have been a transposition of the "072" portion of the coordinates.
According to an intelligence report, the suspected bunker was in an area recently occupied by Iraqs 52nd Infantry Division at geographic coordinates 29 56N 047 06E (UTM coordinates QU 031 136). At the time of the reported exposure, an officer who served with the 9th Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, was located at a tactical assembly area at geographic coordinates 29 57 06N 047 05 02E (UTM coordinates QU 010 150). He reported the bunker where PFC Fisher was exposed was one kilometer northeast of the tactical assembly area. We found no other information to support this statement.
C. Medical Diagnosis and Treatment
PFC Fishers initial treatment by the medics in the 4th Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment (4-8th Cavalry) aid station did not focus on his injury as chemical warfare-related. PFC Fisher himself originally thought a spider bite might have caused his arms redness and soreness. At 1:00 AM, March 2, 1991, he awakened for guard duty and radio watch and noticed redness on his upper left arm. He went to sick call at 8:00 AM; the medic diagnosed the blister as a possible heater burn and told Fisher to return to sick call in the afternoon.
CW2 Ahmed related Fisher came to him with "a big blister on the deltoid of his arm," which CW2 Ahmed said he treated with calcium hypochlorite. CW3 Widhalm examined PFC Fishers blisters and stated, "It was a textbook picture straight from the photos shown in the chem school."
The assistant non-commissioned officer in charge (NCOIC) of the 4-8th Cavalry aid station and another medic working there took PFC Fisher through the decontamination procedures. The assistant NCOIC indicated he knew of no urine or blood tests taken while PFC Fisher was at the aid station. Medical personnel evacuated PFC Fisher to the 45th Support Battalion for further treatment.
Before hostilities, three two-man teams of medical experts had deployed to the Kuwait theater of operations from the US Army Medical Institute of Chemical Defense. One team each was assigned to VII Corps, XVIII Airborne Corps, and the US Marines in-theater. Colonel (Doctor) Michael Dunn and another doctor, a pulmonary specialist, made up the VII Corps team. On PFC Fishers diagnosis and treatment as a chemical warfare agent casualty, Colonel Dunns team was notified to examine PFC Fishers injury.
When confronted with this apparent chemical warfare agent exposure, Colonel Dunn reviewed PFC Fishers activities before his first symptoms appeared. Colonel Dunn indicated in several interviews PFC Fishers blisters could have been caused by something other than mustard, such as poison ivy or other "skin sensitizing contact dermatitis provokers." However, in the absence of these causes and with the possibility that US soldiers might encounter chemical warfare agents in Iraq, he agreed with the clinical diagnosis of blister agent exposure.
When Colonel Dunn interviewed PFC Fisher to determine where and when his exposure might have occurred, he learned PFC Fisher had entered several bunkers on a search-and-destroy mission. PFC Fisher entered one particular bunker by squeezing through the doorway and passageway , where he recalled contacting many surfaces in the tight passages, thus soiling his clothing and equipment. Exiting the bunker, he again brushed against the wall and doorway.
Colonel Dunn concluded an exposure to liquid mustard chemical warfare agent while exploring enemy bunkers caused PFC Fishers skin injury. Colonel Dunn believed the sequence of events was consistent with this conclusion, particularly the eight hours between exposure and the first symptoms appearance. He concluded no other corrosive or skin-toxic chemical compounds that reasonably could be expected to be on the Gulf War battlefield show this eight-hour latent period between exposure and blisters appearance.
In a 1995 interview, Colonel Dunn reviewed the possible causes of PFC Fishers injury. He stated there were two possibilities. One possibility was PFC Fisher may have gotten into something on the battlefield other than mustard, for example, waste products usually associated with motor pools or possibly rocket fuel. All sorts of things might have caused blistering. Alternatively, PFC Fisher was, in fact, exposed to mustard chemical warfare agent. Colonel Dunn concluded that all of the information available at the time led to the diagnosis that the injury was clinically consistent with a mustard exposure, but that it was unproven and unconfirmed.
In a 1999 discussion with Colonel Dunn of possible causes for PFC Fishers blisters, he stated
Colonel Dunn went on to explain that the universe of things that can cause skin to redden and blister six to eight hours after exposure is rather limited. Chemical warfare agents, some skin sensitizing agents and some plants like poison ivy can cause blisters such as PFC Fishers. In the absence of evidence for other things that seem likely, given the location, he believed mustard was the most likely, especially considering the latent period.
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