Speech By Dr. Bernard Rostker
Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense
For Gulf War Illnesses
Before the Worldwide Chemical Conference
Fort McClellan, Alabama
June 25, 1998
General Wooten, members of the United States Army Chemical Corps, conference participants, ladies and gentleman.
It is my pleasure to be here to share with you some important lessons that we have developed concerning the recent Gulf War.
When I was appointed Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, some 19 months ago, I was charged with a three part mission: first, to ensure our veterans of the Gulf War received the medical care they need; second, to do everything possible to understand and explain Gulf War illnesses, and third, to put into place all required military doctrine, and personnel and medical policies and procedures to minimize any future problem from exposure to biological and chemical agents and other environmental hazards. It is this last mission that I would like to discuss with you today.
This conference is part of the observation of the Army Chemical Corps' 80th anniversary. This week, some 80 years ago -- June 28, 1918 to be exact -- President Woodrow Wilson created the Chemical Warfare Service to formalize our nation's response to the introduction of asphyxiating gases to the "modern" battlefield which had occurred three years earlier. Germany had caught the allies unprepared with chlorine, and later phosgene and mustard.
Even before the Chemical Warfare Service was formed, the allies had rushed to identify and procure equipment to protect their forces from the effects of these "new" weapons. The focus was on protecting our soldiers from incapacitation or death. Even so, over 1 million allied veterans of World War I suffered permanent effects from being "gassed."
Fortunately, it wasn't until the Gulf War that our forces again faced a credible chemical, and this time biological threat, in combat. Saddam Hussein had demonstrated during the Iran/Iraq War, and by all accounts in action against his own people, that he not only possessed chemical weapons, but that he was willing to use them.
We all remember, and many of you took part in, the massive build up of Desert Shield. We rushed everything we had to an inhospitable desert halfway around the world, and much of what we sent we found wanting. Soldiers found it difficult to maintain the M17A2 protective masks. MOPP suits were hot and bulky even though we were extremely lucky that most troops were in theater during the relatively cool months. Many M256 kits issued to troops had passed their expiration dates. Our M8A1 alarms could not detect mustard. In addition, the alarm was susceptible to many interferents that could produce false alarms, as could something as simple as a weak battery. We were so desperate for chemical reconnaissance capability that we fielded the Fox NBC reconnaissance vehicles without proper doctrine or understanding of its operating limitations. Fortunately, our deterrence in other related areas was strong and credible enough that we never had to test our ability to protect our troops from chemical or biological agents.
Since the Gulf War, there have been a number of lessons learned papers and reviews that have centered on our equipment and procedures, as well as training. Those responsible for defense chemical preparedness have taken steps to field new equipment and accelerated research and development. The Clinton Administration has programmed hundreds of millions of dollars to improve our preparedness, and the President has spoken at the recent commencement at the United States Naval Academy of his concern for chemical and biological terrorism, the poor man's weapons of mass destruction.
I want to talk to you about a different set of lessons that we must learn from the Gulf War. These are the lessons from dealing with what has become known as Gulf War Illnesses. When I became the Department's point man on the operational aspects of what our troops may have been exposed to during service in the Gulf, a typical New York Times headline, such as this one for 11 December 1996, was "Soldiers Say they Found Chemicals Weapons In Kuwait." The story reported that "Two American soldiers who manned the most sophisticated chemical detection equipment used in the 1991 Persian Gulf war told Congress ... that chemical weapons were found in Kuwait during and after the war, contradicting repeated statements from the Defense Department."
Not only were those of us in Washington attacked, as the Times reported: "The testimony ... provided new ammunition to (those) ... who in the past have accused the Pentagon of hiding evidence of Iraqi chemical exposure during the Gulf War," but the leadership of military commanders was also called into question. It was charged that "valid chemical detections had been 'dismissed, discounted, discredited or denied' by commanders eager to ignore the possibility that troops had been exposed to chemical weapons." Later on 2 January 1997, the Times commented on the "eagerness of U.S. commanders to dismiss what soldiers considered to be valid chemical detections."
Now, I am sure that there are some listening to me today that might be thinking that the soldier and Marine that testified might have been correct. In fact, to determine if they were correct has been the major task of my organization, and it has not been an easy task. It hasn't been easy because seven years after the war we do not have all the information we would like to make a fully informed and final judgment. This is because we did not have the doctrine in place during the Gulf war to properly account for what our troops might or might not have been exposed to during their deployment to the Gulf.
This problem was foreseen back in 1992, just one year after the war, by a young Marine Captain, Thomas Manley, in the definitive report on "Marine Corps NBC Defense in Southwest Asia." In this report, Captain Manley commented on the usual issues of doctrine, training and equipment. He also commented on the perception and reality of being exposed to chemical weapons. He noted, "there are no indications that the Iraqis tactically employed agents against Marines. However, there are too many stated encounters to categorically dismiss the presence of agents and chemical agent munitions in the Marine Corps sector." Despite 14% of the Marines and 28 % of the NBC specialists surveyed stating that they believed they "encountered chemical munitions or agent threats," we did "categorically dismiss the presence of agents and chemical agent munitions." One investigator from the Presidential Advisory Committee -- the PAC -- "described the Pentagon's public policy ... (between 1991 and 1995) as 'the three no's -- there was no use, there was no exposure, there was no presence' of chemical weapons."
If I might return to the question, did the soldier and Marine who testified get it right? Did a Fox crew detect chemical warfare agents repeatedly in Kuwait, in the first days of the ground war, as was reported by the Times? Did a Fox crew detect mustard agent in a large metal tank found in Kuwait in August 1991, as testified to before Congress? While I think that I know the answer to these questions, it is more important that you know the answer to these questions. Fortunately, I can help you since my office has extensively researched these reported chemical incidents and has published our findings in several case narrative reports. Specifically, you can get copies of our case narratives at our booth outside this room, by request to my office or you can down load them from the internet. Four case narratives cover the Marine Breaching Operation, Marine operations at Al Jaber, the operations of the 11th Marines, and Marine operations at the ASP (Ammunition Supply Point) commonly called the Orchard.
My answer to the first question is that it was "unlikely" that Marines were exposed to chemical warfare agents during operations in Kuwait. We cannot be sure, and this is where doctrine comes in, because we don't have the tapes from the Fox mass spectrometer that took the readings. However, knowledge of the operating characteristics of the Fox and the other evidence we have been able to develop is strong enough to, in our judgment, make the call that it was "unlikely" that chemical agents were present. But you be the judge. If you have any information that would help further explain these incidents and to fill-in the blanks, please visit our display, call our hot line, send us an e-mail or write us a letter. We have already spoken to over 8 thousand veterans and have received over 4 thousand e-mail messages. This information is an important source for our case narratives.
In the case of the "mustard agent in the large metal tank found in Kuwait in August 1991," we have concluded that it definitely was not mustard and definitely was red fuming nitric acid. We are very sure of this and you can review our work in the case narrative on the Kuwaiti Girls' School, where the tank was found. We are sure, even though a Senate Committee in 1994, had concluded that it was a chemical agent and the PAC prematurely "voted" before we had completed our case narrative, that this was mustard agent and ordered me twice to notify troops who were in the vicinity of a possible release of deadly chemical weapons. Why are we so sure in this case? Why did I put my reputation on the line and call it "definite." The reason is that in this case, we have the Fox tapes. In fact, that is a very interesting story that again illustrates why we need new doctrine.
The Fox tape and samples from the "large metal tank" were sent to Porton Down in Great Britain in 1991, and the content of the tank was determined to be red fuming nitric acid. However, back in 1991, no one was interested in a negative finding that a suspected chemical agent was NOT, in fact, a chemical agent. Here is what we, and the British, have discovered and reported in our joint case narrative:
The Porton Down initial report dated September 24, 1991, stated that: 'the samples had a definite yellow/brownish color compared to the original white of the resin. ... Analysis by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry showed no material of chemical warfare (CW) interest. ... The samples were entirely consistent with the contents of the tank being nitric acid and there is no evidence of any CW dimension.' Although the Porton Down initial report indicated that a detailed report would follow, no such detailed report was ever produced. This is probably because once it had been established that the tank's contents contained no material of chemical warfare interest, the matter assumed a low priority, and the aim of producing a detailed reported was overtaken by other, more pressing, commitments."
These results were never adequately shared with the team that took the samples and provided the Fox tape, and a subsequent report by the commander of the Fox unit that mustard and phosgene were found in Kuwait was eventually obtained by a staff member of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, who was investigating allegations of chemical agent use in the Gulf War. Since the U.S. copy of the Fox tape could not be located, the Senate Committee concluded in 1994, that it was likely that the tank had contained a mix of chemical warfare agents.
In July 1997, as part of my office's reinvestigation of all chemical incidents, we discussed our difficulty in finding a copy of the Fox tapes with our colleagues in the British Ministry of Defense. They retrieved copies from Porton Down and forwarded them to us. The tapes were resubmitted to CBDCOM, and the Project Manager for NBC Defense Systems whose analysis of the tapes was, "None of the initial warnings for either phosgene or mustard agent were verified by the MM-1 mass spectrometers located in either of the two Fox NBC reconnaissance vehicles that were at the site." Additional analysis of the 1991 Fox tapes conducted by Bruker Daltonics, the manufacturer of the MM-1 mobile mass spectrometer, and by the US Department of Commerce, National Institute of Standards and Technology, confirmed this assessment. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology: "After examining the tapes from two Fox vehicles it is clear that there is no mass spectral evidence confirming presence of either of the two CW agents reported (phosgene and mustard)." It went on to state, "the principal peak in nitrogen dioxide, is consistent with the introduction of [inhibited] red fuming nitric acid into the mass spectrometers of both vehicles." Bruker Daltonic's assessment was "The tape shows that the system passed its automatic test on start-up indicating there were no major system failures. Approximately thirty minutes later, the system indicates an initial alarm that phosgene may be present. ... The complete spectra in these tapes do not confirm the presence of CWA in the tank in question, but rather [are] consistent with the independent analysis that the brown oily liquid was in fact [inhibited red] fuming nitric acid."
Here are the lessons I would like you to take from the Kuwait Girls' School case, as reported in our case narrative:
This is the challenge I bring to you today. During Desert Shield, we created a heightened sensitivity to the threat of chemical, and biological weapons. It was a threat that the troops preparing to fight this war had never faced and it was scary. We had so convinced our troops that Saddam Hussein would use chemical weapons, and of the terrible consequences of not being prepared, that many still cannot believe Captain Manley's conclusion that, "there are no indications that the Iraqis tactically employed agents." Given this mind set, we should not have ignored the psychological impact on our troops of false alarms. False alarms aren't just an engineer's problem; they're a commander's problem. We must acknowledge and deal with the reality that troops often don't believe what they are told, and rumors, fed by false alarms, will flourish.
We have got to develop a new mind set and new doctrine. Any suspected chemical, or biological attack, must be fully documented. This must include a detailed description of what caused the suspicion, what was done to check it out, where the unit was located, whether there were any unusual symptoms or illnesses among the troops present, what the final determination was and finally, how that information was communicated laterally to other units, as well as up the line to higher headquarters, and down the line to all troops. All this must go into the unit log, and all unit logs must be retained and archived. Most importantly, this applies to incidents, which turn out to be false alarms. The message from Gulf War illnesses is check it out, squash the rumors, keep the tapes, regardless of whether or not they are positive.
In a very real sense, Gulf War illnesses have, for many soiled a magnificent victory. Many Americans today will not remember Kuwait as the place we achieved a stunning victory, but as the place our troops were exposed to poison gas. To date, our investigations do not support these claims, but we don't, and never will have all the information we need to be absolutely certain. Only you and your successors can make sure this does not happen again. One lesson of the Gulf War is that the honor of the Army and its commanders is in the hands of Chemical Corps; not only to protect our troops from incapacitation or death, but to document what our troops might and might not have been exposed to in defense of our country. It may never be possible to provide a complete accounting to yesterday's veterans of what happened in the Gulf, but we must work to provide a complete accounting to tomorrow's veterans as they deploy, and if necessary fight on future battlefields. The time to start to develop this capability is now! We need a new mind set and a new doctrine of full accountability that will make this possible.
Thank you very much.