DoD Investigates Multiple Chemical Alarms
Reported by 11th Marines
WASHINGTON, November 5, 1998 (GulfLINK) - The Department of Defense released today the results of its on-going investigation into accounts of chemical alarm alerts reported by the 11th Marines artillery regiment during the Gulf War.
"What makes the investigation important is that there were so many chemical warfare agent alerts involving this one particular unit," said Dr. Bernard Rostker the special assistant for Gulf War illnesses. "Many veterans of the Gulf War believe that the frequency of the alerts involving the 11th Marines may indicate that this unit experienced possible chemical agent attack."
During their support of the U.S. 1st Marine Division's operations in the vicinity of southern Kuwait during Desert Storm, the 11th Marines reported a number of alerts for chemical warfare agents. Some of the 18 alerts reported over a 42-day period investigated by DoD's Gulf War office originated with the 11th Marines, while other alerts subsequently reported by the unit were initiated elsewhere across a wider area of operations and were passed by radio to the artillery regiment, the report said.
"As we search for the causes of why so many Gulf War veterans are experiencing unexplained illnesses, all accounts of chemical warfare agent exposure merit close scrutiny," Rostker added.
The case narrative examines why the 11th Marines recorded so many alerts and assesses the likelihood of the presence of chemical warfare agents during the incidents reported. Unlike the Gulf War office's prior case narratives, which address specific short-term and localized incidents, the 11th Marines' narrative encompasses multiple events occurring over several weeks and many square miles of operations.
Investigators determined that reports of chemical warfare alerts may have been the result of several factors, including: the unit's high state of alert to the possibility that chemical weapons might be deployed against them; the method by which the unit maneuvered - which exposed fixed elements of the 11th Marines to enemy fire; and the introduction of new, and relatively untried, chemical weapons' detection equipment.
The unit's personnel knew that Iraq had used chemical agents during the Iraq-Iran war, the report said. In addition, the Marines were aware that their area of operations during the Gulf War was where the Iraqis expected an attack. The 11th Marines' leaders were, therefore, inclined to report - and respond quickly to reports of - chemical weapons alarm alerts in the absence of any confirmation of an Iraqi attack.
The DoD investigation examined every chemical weapons alarm incident reported by the 11th Marines, but in a minority of the instances, the documented information available to investigators was so sparse that it appeared initially that a firm assessment might not be possible.
"In some cases, we could not find enough information to even determine who had initiated an alarm or for what reason," Rostker explained. "In all of the others, the information found through analysis of logs and reports and interviews with Marine witnesses does not lead a reasonable person to conclude that chemical warfare agents were present." Today, we have the benefit of a methodical analysis of an investigation conducted in the calm afforded us with hindsight. To the Marines engaged in the battles raging at the time, it was a much different situation."
The Gulf War illnesses inspectors' methodology brought together all the information available today to explain what happened on the battlefield during the Gulf War and to clarify the picture that was often obscured by the "fog of war." The investigators considered the testimony of all available witnesses, and for the overwhelming majority of the events, they conducted an extensive review of hundreds of documents, including operations and radio traffic logs, and other reports. Having reviewed all these materials, and with the understanding that there were no medical reports of chemical weapons agent-caused injuries, and finding no evidence that Iraq had the opportunity or means to deliver chemical warfare agent, investigators assessed the overall possibility that chemical weapons caused the alarms as "unlikely."
Given the environmental and operational conditions imposed on the 11th Marines prior to and during the fighting, their sensitivity to the variety of alarm reports is quite understandable, Rostker said. Marine units operated with restricted visibility from oil well fires and often had to feel their way forward against an unseen enemy which was laying down fire through the smoke.
According to the report, the 11th Marines relied on detection equipment, particularly the Fox reconnaissance vehicle that first saw actual use during the Gulf War, without understanding the limits of their capabilities. The Fox was not designed to detect low concentrations of airborne chemical agents, but the Marines were unaware of that limitation, causing them to rely less on other detection devices which, while also capable of producing false alarms, were nonetheless more sensitive for testing ambient air samples.
The case narrative concludes that the 11th Marines used the reports of chemical warfare agent indications they received to protect their forces from possible chemical warfare exposure while focusing on their critical mission to support the infantry units. Under those conditions, reports of chemical weapons alarms - validated or not - coming to the 11th Marines over the radio network would be sufficient to merit protective measures.
Investigators found that in some cases, positive chemical agent tests using various detection devices available to the Marine unit triggered some of the alerts. The same environmental and operational conditions - smoke and other petroleum contaminants - surrounding the 11th Marines could also have been responsible for false positive readings from virtually all of the detection devices available to them.
"For much of the ground campaign in Kuwait, these Marines were subjected to high concentrations of smoke and raw petroleum as a result of the massive oil well fires set by Iraqis before the Marines entered Kuwait," Rostker said. "The chemical detection and alarm equipment were not designed to operate within this type of intensely contaminated environment."
Rostker reminded veterans that this is an interim, not a final report.
"I hope that veterans will read this report. If there is an error or information that we missed, we want to know. We are committed to continue the investigation into these incidents, and any others, that could help explain why some of our Gulf War veterans are ill," Rostker said.
"We encourage veterans with additional information to call the Gulf War incident line at 1-800-472-6719 or DSN 878-3261."