OSAGWI report reveals "likely"

case of mustard agent exposure


WASHINGTON, September 10, 1997 (GulfLINK)--The Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses (OSAGWI) has recently released a report concluding that one soldier�s possible exposure to mustard agent was likely.

Dr. Bernard Rostker, the special assistant for Gulf War illnesses, said during an August 28 Pentagon press briefing that Pfc. David A. Fisher's blister injuries, which were received on March 1, 1991, were likely the result of chemical exposure.

"This is the second time our analysis confirms possible exposure to a chemical agent," Rostker said. "The first case was Khamisiyah, following the demolitions of munitions stored at the site. This case, however, is different because we have injuries consistent with exposure, positive Fox chemical vehicle readings, and medical corroboration."

The case is considered likely for exposure, rather than definitely because further testing in the U.S. failed to corroborate earlier findings. Rostker stated that if the follow-up test results had been positive, the overall assessment of the incident would have been definitely a case of chemical exposure.

According to the report, Pfc. Fisher's mission on the day he was exposed included exploring enemy bunker complexes in southeastern Iraq near the Kuwaiti/Iraqi border. While exploring one particular bunker in search of intelligence information, he had to squeeze through many tight passages. It was during this time, that he was probably exposed to or brushed up against the mustard agent.

Inside the bunker, Pfc. Fisher saw crates and many loose artillery projectiles. These appeared in disarray, possibly due to an earlier bombing. He noted a skull and crossbones on at least one of the crates, took this as a danger sign, and immediately left the bunker. Exiting, he again brushed up against the wall and doorway.

Approximately eight hours later, Fisher felt some pain and a burning sensation on his upper left arm. According to the report, he initially thought his injuries were caused by a bite from a spider. A medic at the battalion aid station suspected a heater burn, but asked Fisher to return later in the day for a follow-up exam. At that visit, eight hours later, the diagnosis of an injury resulting from chemical agent exposure was made and appropriate treatment was provided. From the approximate time of contact to the diagnosis and treatment, approximately 24 hours had elapsed.

The next day, an Army physician who was an expert in chemical weapon injuries, examined Fisher and obtained a urine sample which was positive for a breakdown product of mustard agent.

Fisher's clothing was also examined for evidence, using the Fox reconnaissance vehicle. This vehicle, first fielded during the Gulf War, uses a very sensitive process that instantly detects chemical agents, along with many harmless substances. The Fox reconnaissance vehicle then uses a mass spectrometer (the MM-1) to analyze and identify the substance detected. Rostker explained that the Fox is not normally used to test for exposure on clothing, but it was used here primarily because of the mass spectrometer capability. The officer who conducted the test explained further.

"I personally saw the soldier. I looked at the wound, and he had blisters on it", he told investigators. "I am a chemical officer, so I asked to see his clothing. On his jacket he had a wet spot. I took the jacket to the [Fox reconnaissance] vehicle. I did a reading and it became positive for blister agent. I did a second reading and it became positive again."

As a result of these tests, further testing was planned at the suspected site. A member of the unit wearing protective equipment was prepared to enter the site and take out all boxes, supports and removable equipment.

"I also intended to scrape samples off of walls and surfaces that he might have brushed up against. We would then attempt to get an MM-1 reading by direct contact with the items and samples I removed, a crew member explained to the investigation team."

However, approximately 20 minutes before entering the bunker to get the sample, the mission was canceled by the 3rd Armored Division Commander, Maj. Gen. Paul Funk, the witness reported.

"I was told that he did not want to risk the personal safety of any of his soldiers, since we had already confirmed the presence and nature of the contamination. Since the bunker was in Iraq, it was not militarily essential that we confirm the exact site of the contamination," he said.

No reports of blisters or other symptoms of mustard agent exposure were made by other individuals in Fisher's unit or nearby units. It should be noted that other members of Fisher's unit were not at risk for mustard exposure, because Fisher was the only person to enter that particular bunker.

While no physical evidence was collected inside the bunker, other analyses were done to corroborate the initial findings. Fox spectrum printouts and samples of Fisher�s coverall sleeve were transported back to the U.S. A videotape of the Fox reading was also analyzed. The Fox spectrum printouts and the videotape were examined by a subject matter expert of the U.S. Army Chemical and Biological Defense Command. He determined them to be inconclusive, but looked at additional information and concluded that Fisher's injuries were caused by exposure to liquid mustard chemical agent.

"The complete sequence of events is consistent with this conclusion," the report reads. "In particular, the latent period of eight hours between exposure and first symptoms is characteristic of mustard exposure."

Pfc. Fisher was awarded the Purple Heart March 28, 1991 "for wounds received in action." He served in the Army several more years following the Gulf War, achieving the rank of Sergeant. He is in generally good health, Rostker said, except for some complaints of short-term memory loss. Fisher is receiving treatment for his complaints through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Rostker encouraged all veterans with health concerns to seek medical attention through either of the two registries.

"I have said repeatedly -- that our primary concern is the health of our active duty folks and the veterans. And we encourage anyone who has any concerns about their health to come in," Rostker said. "If they are on active-duty, to the CCEP [Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program] and if they are veterans, to the VA Registry."

Both programs can be reached toll-free. The DoD's CCEP number is 1-800-796-9699 and the Department of Veterans Affairs Helpline number is 1-800-749-8387.

The assessment for this case is tentative, considering the facts available on the date the report is published. Each case is reassessed over time based on new information and feedback. Veterans who have additional information that would improve the understanding of events on March 1, 1991, in southeastern Iraq near the Kuwaiti border, are encouraged to call the Gulf War Incident Hotline at 1-800-472-6719. Further versions of the case narrative will be issued as more information becomes available.

Rostker noted this case narrative is the sixth such report released by OSAGWI. Case narratives are comprehensive reports that summarize all the information that DoD currently knows about particular incidents. Other narratives expected soon are: Al Jaber Air Base (seven chemical alerts in retaking a Kuwaiti air base); ASP/Orchard (Fox vehicle alerts at an Ammunition Supply Point in an orchard southwest of the Kuwait International Airport); the Kuwaiti Girl's School (a tank outside a school that may have contained mustard agent); the Czech/French Detections (seven reported detections by these two countries' troops); and Tallil Air Base (possible storage of chemical warfare agents at this Iraqi base).

"We are also working on a review of information papers on military procedures and equipment associated with Gulf War activities," Rostker said. "We have released an information paper on the Fox NBC Reconnaissance Vehicle, and are preparing others on issues like depleted uranium, insecticides, pyridostigmine bromide, infectious diseases, stress, oil well fires, the M8A1 alarm, and MOPP protective gear."