DoD completes investigation into chemical incidents
reported by 11th Marines

By Lisa A. Gates
OSAGWIMRMD Public Affairs

WASHINGTON, May 31, 2001 (GulfLINK) - The Defense Department released today its conclusion of the investigation into accounts of possible chemical incidents involving the 11th Marines artillery regiment during the Gulf War. First published in 1998, the "11th Marines" case narrative assessed the likelihood of the presence of chemical warfare agents and examined why the 11th Marines reported so many incidents. Since 1998, investigators from the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, Medical Readiness and Military Deployments have gained a greater understanding as to why so many incidents and alerts were recorded and the possibility of chemical warfare agent presence by further researching Gulf War chronologies, unit logs and other new information provided by Gulf War veterans.

Additionally, the former Presidential Special Oversight Board reviewed the 1998 narrative and recommended DoD make some changes to the narrative and republish it as a final report.

Using current methodology, investigators determined that there were 17 — not 18 as reported in 1998 - separate possible chemical warfare agent events involving the 11th Marines. The incidents are clustered at the start of the Coalition air campaign in the second half of January 1991 and during the ground campaign in late February 1991. However, the available information about these incidents varies greatly and some is based on a single log entry.

"We found after interviewing [Gulf War] veterans, that they had difficulty in remembering what happened. They tended to confuse or join together separate incidents," said Tom Stewart, the report's principle author who led the investigative team. "However, this is to be expected because of the length of time that has passed since the Gulf War. Also, the terrain was very uniform with few identifying landmarks to help Marines pin down locations and times. The desert can be very featureless and everything blends together."

During Desert Storm, the 11th Marines supported 1st Marine Division's operations in the vicinity of southern Kuwait. To coordinate artillery fire support requirements, the 11th Marines maintained close contact with other 1st Marine Division units through communication networks and liaison teams that provided up-to-the-minute awareness of the situation across the division. Parts of the 11th Marines became aware of, and passed on, many alerts. However, Marine units sometimes failed to identify themselves and their locations. Investigators believe this resulted in more alerts and more widely disseminated alerts than necessary. In most of these alerts, Marines donned additional chemical protective clothing.

"In some instances, the alerts spread like wild fire," said Stewart, "probably causing more Marine units to mask up than was necessary.

"Additionally, a crying wolf syndrome developed. After several instances of someone yelling 'Gas! Gas! Gas!' and it being a false alarm, some Marine commanders ordered their units to ignore NBC alerts unless approved by the commanding officer. This could have been dangerous if there had been a chemical attack," continued Stewart.

When assessing the incidents, investigators considered post-war data on Iraq's ability to deliver particular types of agents. For example, Iraq's tube artillery could only deliver mustard agent, but not nerve agent.

At the time of Operation Desert Storm, the Central Intelligence Agency believed Iraq probably had moved chemical weapons forward and had the capability to deliver chemical warfare agents in the Kuwait theater of operations. However, in 1996 and 1997 testimony before the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, United Nations Special Commission and CIA experts testified that they had come to believe Iraq did not deploy chemical weapons or agents into Kuwait before or during the war.

"The 11th Marines analysis, however, did not presuppose those latter assessments were correct and independently looked for evidence of chemical warfare agent presence," said Stewart.

For two of the 17 incidents, investigators found little or no documentation or eyewitness accounts to permit analysis of the possibility of chemical warfare agent presence and assessed them as "indeterminate."

For 13 incidents, investigators collected substantial information and assessed that chemical warfare presence was "unlikely" in each event. Additionally, the other two incidents were assessed by investigators as "definitely not" involving chemical warfare presence. In all 17, no chemical warfare agent casualties were reported.

Reassessment of two of the 18 incidents in the original 1998 report resulted in them being set aside as not suggestive of possible chemical warfare agent exposure. The updated version of the case narrative refines and expands on the assessments of the remaining 16 original incidents and addresses one additional new incident reported by a veteran.

Investigators believe that false positive chemical warfare agent tests triggered some incidents. All of the detection devices — the Fox Nuclear Biological and Chemical Reconnaissance Vehicle, the M256 Chemical Agent Detection Kit, the Chemical Agent Monitor, the Remote Sensing Chemical Agent Alarm and the M8A1 Automatic Chemical Agent Alarm System - available to Marine units at the time of the Gulf War could produce false positive indications in the presence of substances other than chemical warfare agents - such as oil well fire smoke. For much of the ground campaign in Kuwait, the 1st Marine Division was exposed to high concentrations of pollutants from the oil well fires. Investigators also believe that the heavy concentrations of smoke and raw petroleum affected the detection equipment, causing it to false alarm and might have been the main source of many of the chemical warfare agents incidents during the ground war.

"One or more chemical detection devices initiated or contributed to many of the incidents the 11th Marines recorded," said Stewart. "If smoke from the oil well fires caused the Fox or other detection devices to give false positive readings, they were responsible for false alarms and unnecessary increases in MOPP level."

According to the report, the 11th Marines relied on detection equipment, particularly the Fox vehicle first used in combat during the Gulf War, without understanding the limits of its capabilities. The Fox was not designed to detect low concentrations of airborne chemical agent vapor. Most Marines were unaware of that limitation, causing them to rely less on other detection devices that while also capable of producing false alarms, were nonetheless more sensitive for testing ambient air. Neither the Fox nor the chemical agent monitor, designed for detecting contamination on people and vehicles, was optimized to provide initial warning of chemical warfare agent presence.

In addition, some Marines didn't fully understand how to use the various chemical warfare agent detectors. This happened, in part, because some equipment was fielded shortly before the start of the ground war. Additionally, the equipment was operated in a polluted environment that could trigger false positive indications. The equipment designers did not anticipate such conditions and most Marines did not understand their effects on the detectors.

"Despite all this, I am convinced that the 11th Marines performed their mission well in support of the infantry, and the chemical weapons threat was only a sidebar to a successful operation," Stewart said.

"The real purpose of this report, in my mind, is to be an information tool - to educate people about what happened during the Gulf War and to help them learn from it. For example, a more disciplined approach to NBC alerts would have reduced the impact of the chemical warfare threat on Marine operations during the Gulf War."

With this publication of the final report, the special assistant's office completes the investigation of the 11th Marines. However, Stewart reminds Gulf War veterans to contact the office if they believe they have information that may change this case narrative. They are encouraged to contact the special assistant's office by calling
(800) 497-6261 or submitting a request via e-mail address