A.  Background

In July 1991, the United States Marine Corps Research Center published a paper titled "Marine Corps NBC Defense in Southwest Asia." More commonly known as the "Manley Report," it was compiled by then Marine Captain Thomas F. Manley. The report is a contemporaneous analysis of the issues pertaining to nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) defense in the Marine Corps areas of operations during the Gulf War. The report focuses on training, doctrine, intelligence, individual NBC equipment, operational readiness, and major lessons-learned. To compile his report, Captain Manley interviewed many Marine veterans. He also developed a survey questionnaire for Marines with NBC-related specialties to provide anonymous observations about the conduct of the war. He developed some of his final report from the survey results and interviews. According to the report, "survey data indicates that a significant number of Marines believed they encountered threat chemical munitions or agents during the ground offensive."[2] At the same time, he concluded "there are no indications that the Iraqis tactically employed [chemical warfare] agents against Marines … [but] there are too many stated encounters to categorically dismiss the presence of agents and chemical agent munitions in the Marine Corps sector."[3]

The Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses does not categorically dismiss the possibility of the use of chemical warfare agents during the Gulf War.  We take seriously reports by veterans of possible encounters with such agents. One such case is the report that Marines encountered chemical warfare agents while breaching Iraqi minefields during the opening operations of the ground war.

The minefield breaching incidents were recounted in interviews and military reports such as the Manley report as well as in testimony before the US Congress and the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses.[4,5] These incidents were also discussed in the June 1997 MITRE Corporation draft report, "Iraqi Chemical Warfare: Analysis of Information Available to DoD,"[6] and in at least one book about the Gulf War.[7] The Office of the Special Assistant’s predecessor (the Persian Gulf Illnesses Investigation Team) initiated an investigation of the incidents, which we completed and published as an interim narrative on July 27, 1997.[8] The interim narrative solicited veterans’ inputs, and noted that we were seeking expert medical evaluation of a reported chemical warfare agent-related injury. Following publication of that interim narrative, we received additional information from veterans, including comments from the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment Fox commander. In addition, the General Accounting Office (GAO) reviewed the original narrative and concluded that artillery fire was present during breaching operations, other chemical detectors indicated possible chemical warfare agent presence, and our reports on laboratory yesting were incomplete, so we should reconsider our assessment in the interim breaching narrative.[9] A detailed discussion of the GAO comments is contained in Tab H. The case narrative that follows updates the original report with the data provided by veterans and results of additional research, including interviews with veterans and consultation with medical subject matter experts. It also responds to the GAO findings.

B.  Situation

On February 24, 1991, US Marines launched an offensive into Kuwait to dislodge occupying Iraqi forces. The First and Second Marine Divisions (1st and 2d MARDIV), the ground maneuver elements of the I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF), were tasked to breach (clear openings in) two heavily defended minefield belts,[10] advance past Al Jaber Air Base, taking key sites along the way, and converge on Kuwait City to liberate the capital. Figure 2 shows each division’s area of responsibility (AOR). The 1st MARDIV opened 14 breaching lanes; the 2MARDIV opened six.[11]

Fig2s.gif (13629 bytes)

Figure 2.  On February 24, 1991, the 1st and 2d Marine Divisions cleared openings in two Iraqi minefield belts in southern Kuwait.

During Marine minefield breaching operations, several events occurred that led some Marines to believe that they were exposed to Iraqi chemical warfare agents. The most significant among these incidents were possible chemical warfare agent alerts involving XM93 Fox Nuclear, Biological, Chemical (NBC) Reconnaissance Vehicles (hereafter referred to as the Fox). In addition, there were reports of chemical warfare agent injuries to Marines in one of the 2d MARDIV breaching lanes.

C. The Iraqi Chemical Weapons Threat at the Time of the Gulf War

Final preparations and briefings for the breaching operations took place on February 23, 1991, as commanders reminded their troops about the strong possibility that the Iraqi forces would use chemical warfare agents,[12] reiterated the need for speed through the minefield breaches,[13] and, above all, urged subordinates to "take care of your men."[14] Lieutenant General Carlton W. Fulford, Jr., who, as a colonel, commanded Task Force Ripper, testified,

"We took this threat of chemical involvement very seriously. We had intelligence ... that the Iraqi forces had the potential, had the capability. We [had] the very best NBC equipment that the Marine Corps had in its inventory at that time. And throughout many months in Saudi Arabia, we trained very, very hard on the detection, protection, and decontamination of our forces."[15]

Before the Gulf War, the US intelligence community[16] warned that Iraq had a chemical weapons capability, and had used chemical weapons against its own citizens as well as against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War.[17] Following the Gulf War, the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), through its chemical and biological weapons inspections program, identified, inventoried and, in some cases, supervised Iraqi destruction of their chemical warfare agents and chemical weapons. Table 1 lists the chemical warfare agents (related to this case) and their delivery means that UNSCOM found Iraq possessed during the Gulf War. The glossary (Tab A) defines the term "chemical warfare agent" and contains additional information about several agents in Iraq’s inventory.

Table 1. Some of Iraq's chemical weapon capabilities at the time of the Gulf War[18]

A. Chemical Warfare A

B. Delivery Means

Mustard (blister agent)
  • 155mm artillery shells
  • aerial bombs
Sarin (nerve agent)
  • 122mm multiple-rocket-launcher rockets

Sarin/cyclosarin (nerve agent mixture)
  • 122mm multiple-rocket-launcher rockets
  • Scud (Al Hussein variant) surface-to-surface missiles
  • aerial bombs

Assessing the presence of any chemical warfare agents in the minefield breaching lanes must take into account how Iraq’s forces could have delivered the agents to the battlefield. Iraq’s air force did not fly ground-attack sorties after January 25, 1991, and therefore could not have delivered chemical warfare agent munitions against Coalition forces.[19] UNSCOM found 155mm artillery shells filled with the blister agent mustard, and 122mm rockets filled with the nerve agent sarin or a sarin/cyclosarin mixture. UNSCOM also found Scud missile warheads filled with either sarin or a combination of two substances, which when mixed with another compound, formed a sarin/cyclosarin mixture.[20] Other than these artillery shells, rockets, and surface-to-surface missiles, UNSCOM found no other delivery means for these chemical warfare agents.[21]

D. Fox Capabilities [22]

Before the start of Operation Desert Storm, the German government gave the United States 60 Fox vehicles. These 60 vehicles were modified for US forces. These modifications included the addition of the M43A1 chemical vapor detector as well as English language labels and English language software to the vehicle’s mobile mass spectrometer. The US military designated the modified German vehicle the XM93 Fox Nuclear, Biological, Chemical (NBC) Reconnaissance Vehicle, but it was simply called the Fox (Figure 3).[23] The Fox was one of several chemical warfare agent detectors deployed by the Marines to detect Iraqi chemical warfare agents. Each Marine division was allocated four Fox vehicles, and usually one was assigned to each maneuver regiment.[24] An understanding of the Fox detection capabilities is important because US Marine Corps Foxes were involved in possible chemical warfare agent alerts in both the 1st and 2d Marine Divisions during minefield breaching operations.

fig3s.gif (18936 bytes)

Figure 3.  A Fox vehicle

The Fox is a six-wheeled light-armored vehicle designed primarily to detect, identify, and mark areas of persistent liquid chemical warfare agent ground contamination. Pressurizing and sealing the vehicle protects the crew from exposure to outside contaminants, and allows the crew to work without the constraints of protective masks and gloves. The primary chemical warfare agent detection system in the Fox consists of a mobile mass spectrometer (the MM-1) and an air/surface sampler. This system is primarily a liquid chemical agent detector. The addition of the M43A1 augments the Fox MM-1 system by providing a credible nerve agent vapor detector. The MM-1 detects chemical warfare agents by analyzing the ionic activity of a sample that has been collected either by raising liquid samples from the ground to the retractable sampling probe, using silicon sampling wheels, or by sampling the surrounding air.[25]

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, which are primarily chemical warfare agents. This target list consists of a four-ion "fingerprint" for each chemical compound. During the initial identification step, the MM-1 fragments each sample into a unique pattern of ions and then compares each four-ion "fingerprint" on the target list against the sample, searching for a match.[26]

If the MM-1 makes an initial match, and the ion intensities are above a specific level (unique for each agent), an alarm sounds to alert the operator. This alert is also displayed on the MM-1 operator’s screen and printed on a paper tape.[27] This initial alert, however, does not verify the presence of a chemical warfare agent since there are many chemical compounds that have the same or similar ions as those compounds on the chemical warfare agent target list. These other compounds can therefore cause a false alarm for chemical warfare agents.[28] These initial indications continue until either the intensity units fall below the alarm level or the MM-1 operator changes sampling methods or modes.[29]

The MM-1 operator must perform a spectrum analysis in order to increase the confidence of the detection of the presence of a chemical warfare agent. A spectrum analysis involves optimizing the MM-1 by lowering the temperature of the sample line from 180 degrees Celsius to 120 degrees Celsius for better ion separation, discontinuing use of the sample wheels, cleaning the sample probe to remove residual ion activity (contamination), and lowering the probe to within three to five centimeters of the contamination. This allows the MM-1 to acquire a better-prepared sample. The MM-1 then searches its 60-compound chemical library of four-ion-peak fingerprints, compares them against this improved sample, and attempts to match the chemical warfare agent fingerprints with the sample.[30]

Using the proper procedures, it takes several minutes to collect a good sample and to obtain a good ion spectrum readout and analysis. This process is necessary to properly evaluate the sample for any suspected chemical warfare agent, and to assure that initial indications were not affected by contaminants from the battlefield (e.g., smoke, diesel exhaust, and oil). Although an MM-1 operator can produce a spectrum in other ways, this is the proper and most accurate method.[31] The MM-1 operator should also print a tape, which saves the details of the spectrum as a hard-copy historical record.[32]

Should the properly performed spectrum procedure identify a chemical warfare agent, the MM-1 operator and the Fox commander can be confident that the agent is present. Conversely, if the spectrum analysis does not identify one of the chemical warfare agents contained in the MM-1 library, the MM-1 operator and the Fox commander can be confident that the chemical warfare agent that was displayed during the initial alarm is not present. Further analysis of the spectrum tape printout by a mass spectrometry expert comparing the spectrum results to an established database of compounds can increase the confidence level of the detection. Additionally, the MM-1 operators were taught to collect a specimen of the contamination (e.g., a soil sample) to further aid confirmation of the substance by thorough analysis in a laboratory. When the MM-1 can not match any of the compounds in the library to the sample, the MM-1 indicates "unknown" on the operator’s screen and the tape printout. A reading of "fats, oils, wax" is considered a false alarm.[33]

A variety of battlefield interferents can cause the MM-1 to register an initial false positive alarm. Compounds that cause the MM-1 to issue false alarms are common solvents and insecticides,[34] riot control agents,[35] diesel fumes and fumes from explosives,[36] and hydrocarbons[37] (e.g., oil well smoke).

Although the MM-1 has a limited capability to detect chemical warfare agents in the air, the Fox was sometimes used for on-the-move vapor detection during the war. It is not optimized for this mission, nor is its detection capability in this method of operation as good as that of other chemical warfare agent detectors.[38]

E. Breaching Details

Before leaving their assembly areas, the Marines of the 1st and 2d MARDIVs assumed Mission-Oriented Protective Posture Level 2 (MOPP-2)[39] —which requires wearing a chemical protective over-garment and boots. They carried their protective masks and gloves, which could be donned in seconds to increase the level of protection to MOPP-4 should there be any indication of a chemical warfare agent attack (Figure 4). Elements of the 1st MARDIV assumed MOPP-2 at 4:00 PM on February 23rd.[40] This level of protection was consistent with Marine doctrine, which defines the MOPP levels and the threat assessment process. Doctrine also advises commanders to balance the threat of exposure and the mission-degrading effects of wearing the protective overgarments (e.g., restricted mobility, higher risk of heat injury) while considering the "mission, environment, and soldier factors."[41]

fig4s.gif (20071 bytes)

Figure 4.  A soldier at MOPP-2 and MOPP-4

The I Marine Expeditionary Force officially began the assault at 4:00 AM on February 24, 1991.[42] Its two Marine divisions breached the first minefield from positions to the north and northwest of the "elbow" (see Figure 2) of the southern Kuwait border. The 2d MARDIV entered Kuwait between the Umm Gudair and Al Manaquish oil fields, about 25 kilometers northwest of the 1st MARDIV.[43] The Marines breached the minefields in accordance with doctrine ("locate the leading edge, breach the lane, proof the lane, and mark the lane").[44]

However, the specific methods and order of maneuver for each Marine division differed slightly. After locating the leading edge of the minefield, combat engineers, using mine-clearing explosive line charges, opened lanes through the minefields. The line charges detonated the mines in the minefield or blew them out of position. Armored equipment with plows, rakes (Figure 5), or rollers followed the line charges to clear and proof the lanes. A team of combat engineers followed the proofing equipment and marked the edges and/or center of the lanes. While doing so, the engineers cleared mines or obstacles that might have fallen back into the cleared lanes and destroyed anything too dangerous to move. If anyone suspected a chemical warfare agent incident, he was directed to call a Fox to check out the area.[45] Using these procedures, the Marines cleared lanes (Figure 6) through the Iraqi minefields wide enough for their attacking forces to pass through.

fig5s.gif (6596 bytes)

Figure 5.  A USMC M60A1 tank with a rake.

fig6s.gif (11911 bytes)

Figure 6.  A minefield breaching lane in Kuwait.

F. Operations of the 1st Marine Division

The 1st Marine Division (1st MARDIV) consisted of units from the 1st Marine, 3d Marine, 7th Marine, and 11th Marine Regiments, as well as units from other Marine regiments, which were attached to the 1st MARDIV. For the conduct of the ground war, the division was further organized into Task Forces (e.g., Task Force Ripper, Task Force Papa Bear), tailored or task-organized collections of forces drawn from various units and built around a core combat team (i.e., an infantry regiment).[46]

On the morning of February 24, 1991, working in cool and drizzly weather with skies overcast from clouds and oil well fire smoke,[47] combat engineers of the 1st MARDIV opened four assault lanes in the first minefield by 7:15 AM and four more in the second minefield by 12:30 PM.[48] By 2:20 PM, all of the 1st MARDIV’s breaching lanes had been opened in both minefields. 1st MARDIV forces passed quickly through the minefield breaches (Figure 7), encountering light resistance in the first minefield belt and overcoming greater enemy resistance while breaching the second minefield belt. By evening, the Marines had reached Al Jaber air base in Kuwait.

fig7s.gif (13768 bytes)

Figure 7.  1st Marine Division minefield breaching

1. Initial Report

After the war, Gunnery Sergeant George Grass, the commander of the 1st MARDIV Fox assigned to Task Force Ripper, testified to the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses (PAC) and to subcommittees of Congress that, while he was crossing the first minefield breach, his vehicle’s mobile mass spectrometer detected "[s]mall traces of nerve agent in the air. The computer system notified us that the amount of chemical agent vapor in the air was not significant enough to produce any casualties. As a result, it was impossible for the Mass Spectrometer to run a complete check on the agent except by visually observing the agent and spectrum on the computer screen. These minute readings continued on the screen for the duration of each lane surveyed. Once my Fox vehicle departed the first minefield breach, those readings went away."[49]

Gunnery Sergeant Grass also indicated that his Fox mobile mass spectrometer was operating in a vapor method of detection. In his testimony to the PAC, he stated that after breaching operations, he reported the trace reading face-to-face to both the 3d Tank Battalion’s nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) officer and the Task Force Ripper NBC officer.[50] We found no evidence to suggest that follow-up testing was done to confirm this report.

2. Additional Information

We made efforts to confirm the events and to find evidence to substantiate the presence of chemical warfare agents. In congressional testimony, Chief Warrant Officer 3 (CWO3) Joseph P. Cottrell, the Task Force Ripper NBC officer, confirmed that he had been informed of the Fox’s’ findings, but he remembered the agent as being blister agent, not nerve agent. When questioned further, he said that he remembered the detection was of a "mustard-type blister" agent. He also stated that the reported levels were below an immediate threat to humans and below the level that would cause symptoms. Except for the agent type, this testimony is consistent with Gunnery Sergeant Grass’s testimony—that the trace amounts of vapor were not significant enough to cause casualties. CWO3 Cottrell decided that crossing the breach did not pose a threat or require subsequent decontamination because the suspected agent was at a trace level and the rapidly-moving Marines were in the area for only a short period of time. Given these factors, CWO3 Cottrell did not send out an NBC-1[51] report.[52]

In this case, after evaluating the situation, Gunnery Sergeant Grass and CWO3 Cottrell agreed that, without more proof, they would not inform division personnel. In addition, the source of the readings was questionable because there was no apparent method for delivery of the suspected chemical warfare agent—i.e., the task force was not being bombed or receiving in-coming artillery, rocket, or mortar fire.[53]

Although this Fox crew supported Task Force Ripper, it was under the direct control of the 3d Tank Battalion’s NBC officer during the breaching operations. This officer had many years of NBC experience, and should have received any report of chemical warfare agent incidents or injuries during the division’s breaching operations. The 3d Tank Battalion NBC officer also had written the NBC portion of the operation order for the breaching operations. Even though the Marines had new equipment (chemical agent monitors and the Fox), his instructions in the operations order were clear: follow the basic NBC procedures to sound the alarm, put on the mask and gloves (an increase to MOPP-4), report to regimental headquarters, and begin supplementary testing with an M256 series chemical agent detector kit.[54] In an interview, he stated that there were no NBC reports generated, no reports of casualties or injuries, nothing to suggest that an increase from MOPP level 2 was required during the breaching operations, and no indications that a chemical warfare agent incident had occurred. He also stated that, during his entire time in the Gulf, he does not recall anyone reporting any positive chemical warfare agent readings to him.[55]

The 1st MARDIV NBC officer, also experienced in NBC matters, served on the operations staff in the division headquarters. He also should have been aware of any NBC reports, any reports from other units, or any reports of chemical warfare agent casualties. When interviewed, he specifically stated that no NBC reports were generated during the breaching operations in the 1st MARDIV and that there was nothing to suggest that there were even trace detections. While many of the Marines were only in MOPP-2, there were no reports of casualties or any chemical warfare agent exposure. In his opinion, there was no chemical warfare agent incident during the 1st MARDIV breaching.[56] According to 7th Marine records, Task Force Ripper (the division’s lead maneuver element) noted no potential or actual exposure to chemical warfare agents throughout all of the breaching operations.[57]

In a written statement, the Fox driver recalled the reconnaissance of the division’s breaching lanes differently than Gunnery Sergeant Grass, "All four lanes of both mine belts were checked and nothing was detected."[58] On the other hand, in testimony before the Presidential Advisory Committee, the Fox MM-1 operator supported Gunnery Sergeant Grass's testimony. He added that the MM-1 was unable to produce a spectrum of the indications he saw on his screen.[59]

3. Analysis

Efforts to find physical evidence of the suspected chemical warfare agent were unsuccessful because the Fox crew did not collect a sample or print a spectrum. Because there were no NBC reports issued and no reports of casualties or exposure injuries, references to this incident are absent from unit logs. The lack of a spectrum is significant, because without the printout of a spectrum, the presence of a chemical warfare agent can not be corroborated.

Gunnery Sergeant Grass testified that the MM-1 indicated that the amount of chemical warfare agent vapor in the air was not significant enough to produce any casualties. He also testified that "several Marines worked to complete the [breaching] lanes while wearing only MOPP level 2 and no gas masks while [his Fox] detected [those nerve agent] readings."[60] In his testimony, CWO3 Cottrell agreed that the reported levels were below an immediate threat to humans and below the level that would cause symptoms. These statements are quite significant in light of MM-1 detection capabilities while sampling vapors. According to experts, the MM-1 is not well suited for vapor detection. The Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Persian Gulf War Health Effects states,

Although sensitive and specific for identification of ground contamination, the mass spectrometer system on board the FOX is not optimized for sampling and alerting to generalized airborne vapors of chemical materials. When operating in the air sampling mode, the FOX is not a suitable warning device; very high concentrations of chemical agents would have to be present, such that unprotected troops in the vicinity would be adversely and acutely affected.[61]

US Army Chemical and Biological Defense Command Fox experts stated that when the MM-1 is used as a vapor sampling device, it is far less sensitive than other detectors, and human symptoms would most likely appear before the Fox MM-1 would alert.[62]

The US Army conducted pre-Gulf War testing and evaluation of the MM-1. The subsequent report concluded, "The [Fox] system requires a knowledge of chemistry by the operator in order to handle situations out of the ordinary. It is much more sensitive to liquids than to vapors, and does not detect [chemical warfare agent] vapor to the danger level for humans."[63] This means that unprotected, exposed personnel would suffer exposure effects before the MM-1 could detect chemical warfare agent vapors.

Gunnery Sergeant Grass testified the MM-1 screen indicated the presence of nerve agent vapors until his Fox left the minefield, but at amounts he believed were insufficient to cause exposure symptoms. However, according to the Army’s MM-1 test report conclusions, if the MM-1 indicated the presence of nerve agent vapors, the amount of nerve agent vapor present had to be above the danger level to humans, and significant enough to result in physical effects—the unprotected, exposed personnel to whom Gunnery Sergeant Grass referred would have become casualties, and likely fatalities. (See Tab G for a discussion of the MM-1’s vapor detection capabilities and chemical warfare agent effects). Task Force Ripper noted no potential or actual exposure to chemical warfare agents throughout all of the breaching operations,[64] and while many of the Marines were only in MOPP-2, there were no reports of casualties or any chemical warfare agent exposures.[65]

As noted in Table 1, based on UNSCOM information, Iraqi ground forces could have delivered mustard agent only with 155mm artillery and nerve agent with 122mm rockets or Scud missiles. Gunnery Sergeant Grass stated that, at the time of this incident, his unit was under small arms fire, but it was not until they reached the second minefield that the 1st MARDIV encountered enemy artillery fire.[66] The command chronology of the 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, a unit collocated with Task Force Ripper, noted that the first minefield was not defended—there was no enemy fire.[67] According to the 3d Tank Battalion NBC officer, there was no chemical attack.[68]

4. Assessment of the Presence of Chemical Warfare Agents in the 1st Marine Division Breaching Lanes

In post-war testimony, both Gunnery Sergeant Grass and CWO3 Cottrell reported that while in the minefield breaching lanes, the Fox’s mobile mass spectrometer detected small traces of nerve agent in the air and indicated that the amount of nerve agent vapor present was not enough to cause casualties. For this reason, the trace detections were not reported further up the chain-of-command. There were no NBC reports and no Marines went to a higher protective posture. The MM-1 operator could not perform a spectrum analysis of the suspected agent. Consequently, samples and an MM-1 tape, evidence considered most valuable in making an assessment, are not available for analysis.

We found no evidence to corroborate claims of chemical warfare agent presence. There is no evidence to indicate that Iraqi weapons delivered chemical warfare agents to the 1st MARDIV breaching lanes. According to witnesses and unit logs, these Marines were not under attack at the time. Therefore, there is no apparent delivery mechanism to account for the presence of chemical warfare agents.

In addition to the absence of a delivery mechanism, there is more convincing evidence which indicates that the MM-1 did not detect nerve agent vapors. According to the Defense Science Board Task Force report and MM-1 experts, the MM-1 is not optimized for sampling and alerting to airborne vapors—it does not detect levels of agent vapor at the danger level to humans. As a result, before the MM-1 could indicate the presence of chemical warfare agent vapor and troops could be warned, unprotected troops exposed to chemical warfare agent vapors would be casualties or fatalities. Given the accounts of the presence of trace amounts of vapor and the MM-1’s vapor detection limitations, one would expect many casualties and deaths within the vicinity of the Task Force Ripper Fox. However, there were no reports of casualties or any chemical warfare agent exposures.

Based on the evidence, we believe that the presence of chemical warfare agents in the 1st MARDIV breaching lanes is unlikely.

| First Page | Prev Page | Next Page |