Chemical exposure during Marine breaching operations unlikely

WASHINGTON, August 18, 1997 (GulfLINK) — A new investigative study concludes it is "unlikely" that Iraqi chemical agents were used on Marines breaching the Iraqi front lines at the start of the ground war in Kuwait.

The Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses (OSAGWI) issued its third case narrative on incidents during the Gulf War that might have involved chemical warfare agents. Case narratives are part of DoD’s initiative to inform the public about the department’s efforts to better understand the nature and possible causes of the illnesses being experiences by some Gulf War veterans.

This case narrative covers two incidents, both on the morning of February 24, 1991, one from the 1st Marine Division (Mar Div) and the other from the 2nd Marine Division (Mar Div)as they passed through breaches or passageways cleared through minefields, which had been planted by the Iraqis in southern Kuwait.

Each incident is examined separately, even though the two incidents were similar. In each case, a Fox chemical detection vehicle, driving through the minefield in a cleared passageway from which the mines had recently been exploded, detected the presence of chemicals.

The main types of evidence indicating that these were real chemical incidents are the memories of two of the crewmen of the Fox attached to the 1st MarDiv—one remembered detecting nerve gas and the other remembered detecting mustard gas—and the printed tapes maintained by the crewmen of the Fox attached to the 2nd MarDiv.

In each case, the crewmen reported multiple detections, not just one. The 1st MarDiv Fox did not report the detections to any unit other than its own, because it detected only "trace" or insignificant quantities that would be harmless during a brief exposure. The 2nd MarDiv Fox did report its detection, and that report rippled through the U.S. forces; it was even found in the records of the 18th Airborne Corps, which was hundreds of miles away at the other end of the U.S. line.

Further evidence supporting a potential chemical presence included a single Marine in the 2nd Division who reported blisters possibly consistent with Mustard gas or Lewisite on the backs of his hands. The reports of others who saw him were inconsistent on whether he had blisters or merely raw, red blotches, and a medical evaluation did not substantiate a chemical injury.

On the other side of the scale of evidence, OSAGWI found several contradictory elements, including:

In every instance where the Fox crew did a second, more accurate analysis of a detection, the test showed no chemicals present;

Burning oil wells engulfed the passageways in oil smoke and such smoke can confuse the detection device on the Fox vehicles, which can lead to a false alarm indicating that chemical agents are present;

Apart from the solitary Marine, no one else in either division complained to doctors of any symptoms consistent with chemical exposure;

The 2nd MarDiv detections indicated the possible presence of Sarin, Mustard and Lewisite—the detection of three different chemical agents in combination with a detection of a "fat, oil, wax" is consistent with equipment giving a false report. Three independent agencies reviewed the Fox vehicles tapea and stated that Fox had caused a false alarm;

No chemical mines were found among the 341,000 Iraqi mines cleared after the war and the Marines had not been under artillery or mortar attack before the explosions.

Altogether, about 70 people were interviewed about the Marine breaching operations, including Fox vehicle crew members, unit commanders, and medical personnel. Each helped to broaden the knowledge of the circumstances and events, which allowed a much better assessment than would have been possible otherwise.

The case narrative states, "This assessment is tentative, based on facts available as of the date of the report publication; each case is reassessed over time based on new information and feedback." Anyone with any further information is being encouraged to contact OSAGWI at 1-800-472-6719. Further versions of the case narrative will be issued as more information becomes available.

OSAGWI is now publishing temporal conclusions in its case narratives. The assessment of the likelihood of a chemical weapon having been used is summarized by using one of five terms: Definite; likely; indeterminate; unlikely; definitely not. On this scale, OSAGWI rated both of the reported chemical incidents during the Marine breaching operations as "unlikely".