During and immediately after the first Gulf War, more than 200,000 of 700,000 U.S. troops sent to Iraq and Kuwait in January 1991 were exposed to nerve gas and other chemical agents. Though aware of this, the Department of Defense and CIA launched a campaign of lies and concocted a cover-up that continues today.
A quarter of a century later, the troops nearest the explosions are dying of brain cancer at two to three times the rate of those who were farther away. Others have lung cancer or debilitating chronic diseases, and pain.
More complications lie ahead.
According to Dr. Linda Chao, a neurologist at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco, "Because part of their brains, the hippocampus, has shrunk, they're at greater risk for Alzheimer's and other degenerative diseases."
At first, the DOD was adamant: No troops were exposed.
"No information…indicates that chemical or biological weapons were used in the Persian Gulf," wrote Secretary of Defense William Perry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs John Shalikashvili in a 1994 memo to 20,000 Desert Storm veterans. Strictly speaking, they were right: No weapons were used. The nerve agent sarin was in the fallout from the U.S. bombing or detonating of Iraq's weapons sites.
Perry and Shalikashvili knew.
As Alan Friedman wrote in The Spider Web: The Secret History of How the White House Illegally Armed Iraq, the Reagan and Bush administrations, which backed Iraq in its 1980-1988 war with Iran, approved of U.S. companies selling chemical agents and equipment to Iraq, including "a huge petrochemicals complex called PC2. Western intelligence also knew that PC2 was capable of generating chemical compounds to make mustard and nerve gas."
Donald Riegle, a Democratic U.S. Senator from Michigan, held hearings about the veterans illnesses in 1993 and 1994. He told me the decision by Reagan and Bush "to secretly help Saddam Hussein build his biological and chemical weapons was a monstrous strategic error that eventually led to the tragedy of Gulf War Syndrome, which killed and disabled so many unprotected American troops."
During January and February 1991, when the U.S. bombed Iraq's weapons plants and storage sites, poisonous plumes floated across the desert to thousands of U.S. troops based on the Saudi border. Sirens wailed daily, but officers in charge announced that the chemical-detection alarms were faulty.
They were not.
A Czech chemical-weapons detection unit found "trace concentrations of sarin, a nerve-paralyzing substance" drifting into Saudi Arabia. French, British and U.S. intelligence units found similar evidence.
Tracy Elledge, a former combat engineer and one of the veterans I interviewed, said, "Alarms went off all the time.… Our officers told us they were false and to disconnect them."
However, Elledge and others were breathing poison.
In a 2012 Neuroepidemiology article, Jim Tuite, a Gulf War illness expert, and Dr. Robert Haley, an internist/epidemiologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, wrote that "large numbers of U.S. and Coalition military personnel were exposed to levels of sarin … high enough to cause irreversible or other serious, long-lasting adverse health effects."
Elledge was on a team setting C-4 plastic explosives at Khamisiyah, one of Iraq's largest weapons sites. "We used timed fuses, which gave us 10 minutes to get a half mile away," he said. "But even at that distance, the smoke was terrible. And we were sent back in to make sure we got everything. The officers never told us the old rockets were filled with sarin, so we didn't wear any protective gear."
Jim Bunker was a lieutenant with the First Infantry Division who had trained as a demolition expert. He told me that "before the DOD blew up the ammunition, it sent papers to the battalion officers and intelligence people with clear markings to help them identify chemical weapons. Then on March 2 or 3, the DOD sent the ordnance disposal team to verify which chemicals were there. We don't know what they found, because once the troops started demolishing them and getting sick, the reports disappeared."
Bunker said that when troops first became ill, his battalion commander, Col. John Gingrich, radioed headquarters to find out what was happening. He was told: "It's the heat."
"We knew this wasn't true," Bunker said. "It was only 85 degrees, and we'd trained in over 100 degrees—without people getting sick like this." The next day, division commander Maj. General Thomas Rhame and Col. Michael Dodson came to their base. "They told Gingrich to be quiet about the men's symptoms," Bunker said.
Dodson, now head of the Armed Services YMCA, did not respond to calls. Rhame, retired and until recently, vice president of the Association of the U.S. Army, told me, "I don't deny the troops were ill. But I don't remember that incident and it's not in my nature to tell a subordinate not to admit something, because it might embarrass us." Gingrich told me he remembers the issue about the heat, but not that Rhame and Dodson visited the next day. What does Bunker think? "There's no way for people to admit to what really happened to us."
Ron Brown, a soldier with the 82nd Division, watched the demolitions from a mile away. "Within 15 minutes, I couldn't breathe and my head was about to split open," Brown said. "Soldiers were nauseous, dizzy and had diarrhea and muscle spasms. About 30 of us went to the medic, who gave us Motrin and told us to drink water."
Later that month, Bunker almost died. As the demolitions continued, his symptoms became more severe. "First, I couldn't control my muscles," he said. "But in a couple days, I had convulsions and collapsed. After this, they medevacked me to hospitals in Saudi Arabia and Germany, and then to the U.S."
Don't Tell the Press
Bunker is now designated 100-percent disabled. He explains that this means that "your disability prevents you from your full capable earning power for your educational level."
Brown and Bunker, who run the National Gulf War Resource Center, say none of the soldiers knew what was happening. And the DOD, CIA and VA hid the truth.
For example, on March 23, 1991, the ARCENT NBC (Army Central Command Nuclear, Biological and Chemical) staff sent a secret, now declassified, memo to the XVIII Airborne Corps: "ARCENT has positive confirmation (by urinalysis) of cml (chemical) agent blister casualty in VII corps. We are not to bring this up to the press. If press asks, XVIII abn (airborne) Corps has had no cml (chemical) casualties."
Later in 1991, UNSCOM (the United Nations Special Commission) found nerve gas in the remains of rockets the U.S. blew up in Khamisiyah and told the Pentagon. In November, although the Joint Chiefs briefed the CIA, other intelligence agencies and the White House, no action was taken. (Six years later, the DOD declassified the UNSCOM memo, posting it on its Gulflink website. Seven months after that, the CIA had it removed—claiming it revealed too much about methods it used to gather intelligence.)
At Riegle's hearings, when DOD and CIA witnesses admitted that UNSCOM inspectors had found traces of nerve gas at Khamisiyah, they still insisted they "could not confirm that any U.S. troops were at the site." Also, they claimed they had no reports of "any soldier or civilian experiencing symptoms consistent with chemical warfare agent exposure." Moreover, they argued that the plumes were too small to pose a great risk.
When UNSCOM went public about the nerve gas, DOD and CIA credibility was becoming compromised. And the Riegle hearings, along with those held by then-Rep. Chris Shays, criticized the VA for its failure to properly care for the veterans.
Thus, in 1997, the DOD wrote to the veterans, admitting that U.S. troops did destroy chemical weapons, that nerve gas was released, and that troops "may have been exposed." But it also claimed "exposure levels were too low to activate chemical alarms or cause any symptoms." If they had questions, veterans were told to "call a hotline."
The CIA insisted it didn't know about the "possible chemical weapons storage at Khamisiyah … until early 1996." Moreover, it stated that "no military units were located under the first-effects portion of the plume" during demolitions on March 10 and 11. Also, that "the troops that performed the demolitions had evacuated the area. We know of one that drove briefly through the smoke from the explosion. He had no ill health effects" [italics added].
Because the DOD and CIA still claim troops weren't exposed to high-enough doses of sarin to hurt them, the VA has denied full disability status to 80 percent of veterans seeking help.
Why must the DOD, CIA and VA lie?
Patrick Eddington, a CIA analyst from 1994 to 1995 who wrote Gassed in the Gulf, resigned when superiors aborted his attempts to reveal the facts. He explained that, "If you're DOD, you're admitting your policies contributed to the veterans' illnesses. If you're the VA, you're admitting you don't know how to treat the vets. If you're the CIA, you blew another estimate and that's not something you want on your resume."
Further, the U.S. would have to admit it sold Iraq chemicals in the 1980s during its war with Iran. The same chemicals that sickened U.S. troops.
From the time the DOD initially admitted that troops may have been exposed, it constantly retallied the toll: In 1996, there were from 300 to 400; from 1997 to 2002, there were 5,000, 20,000, 99,000 and finally 101,752—but still, exposure to "very low levels of nerve gas agents."
Where Are the Medical Records?
When Brown and others tried to obtain their medical records to prove their illnesses were service-related, they learned that the records had disappeared. In a 2007 letter, Dr. Gary Trogdon, chief of the Public Inquiries Section at the Army's Historical Resources Branch, informed Brown that Army units were told to destroy the "after action" reports, since "there was no space to ship the paper back to the States." But, Trogdon said, records were kept at the brigade level. When Brown asked Senator Mark Warner to help, he, too, came up empty-handed.
Bunker insists veterans don't need their records. "If they're diagnosed with fibromyalgia or had chronic diarrhea for the past four or five years, it's considered service-connected. It's presumptive under the law for Gulf War veterans—even if they can't diagnose the cause. But the VA still denies veterans claims, because they don't have their medical records."
However, Bunker and Brown are hopeful. Bunker says President Obama's new VA Secretary Robert McDonald recently ordered that studies be conducted to determine if certain illnesses should be reclassified as presumptive.
Brown was able to speak with McDonald—after trying unsuccessfully to reach the previous secretary. Brown noted that "just last month, McDonald wrote me [that] he was extending the date for veterans to file presumptive service-connected disability claims."
Still, when Brown read a 2014 New York Times article about 600 troops exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, he called the hotline and was told it was only for newly exposed veterans. When he asked about help for the very sick 200,000 Desert Storm veterans, he was directed to Coleen Baird at Aberdeen Proving Ground, who is studying recent veterans illnesses.
He asked what she could do for them.
Baird said she would refer his request to another office.
Correction: An earlier version of this article showed troops from the United Kingdom in Iraq. It has been replaced by a photo of U.S. troops.