Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Troops to Be Checked for Chemical Exposure in Iraq
United States made chemical weapons found in Iraq.
OCT. 29, 2014
New York Times

The Pentagon will offer medical examinations and long-term health monitoring to service members and veterans who were exposed to chemical warfare agents in Iraq, the Army and Navy said in separate statements this week, as part of a review of how the military handled encounters with thousands of abandoned chemical munitions during the American occupation.

The review was ordered by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in response to an investigation by The New York Times of how troops who were exposed to nerve and mustard agents were treated by the military’s medical and awards systems. The report found that while the United States had gone to war looking for an active weapons of mass destruction program, troops instead quietly found and suffered from the remnants of the long abandoned arsenal built by Saddam Hussein with help from the West.

Since that article was published on Oct. 15, detailing several instances of exposure that the military kept secret in some cases for nearly a decade, more veterans and active-duty service members have come forward with their own accounts of exposure and inadequate treatment. To date, neither the Pentagon nor any of the services have released a full list of chemical weapons recoveries and exposures.

The Pentagon kept silent as munitions left over from Saddam Hussein’s war with Iran found new targets from 2004 to 2011: American and Iraqi troops.

The investigation by The Times found that the military did not follow its own health care guidelines in the initial care of many patients, and did not establish a means for following their health over time, as the guidelines also required. It also found that the services applied different standards for awarding Purple Hearts, a medal that recognizes wounds received in action, engendering bitterness and feelings of betrayal among troops and veterans who were exposed.

In response, two senior Army doctors said in interviews this week that new medical examinations for troops and veterans who were exposed to chemical munitions would begin in early 2015.

Maj. Gen. Gary Cheek, deputy commanding general for Army operations, said the veterans’ accounts of poor medical care and follow-up were disturbing. “I am not going to try to excuse it,” he said.

“The No. 1 thing for us is to make sure we are taking care of soldiers” and veterans, he said, and added that the military planned to work with the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure exposures were documented and treated if necessary.

But he defended the continued secret classification of chemical-weapons incidents, saying that the military did not want to provide information to insurgents that Iraq’s old chemical munitions “could be effective.”

“These are some of the rationales for keeping this stuff within secret channels,” he said.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, Mr. Hagel’s spokesman, suggested that position was now under review. “The secretary obviously remains committed to preserving operational security but also recognizes the value in making available as much information as possible to veterans preparing — or continuing to file — V.A. claims,” he said.

The new accounts increase to at least 25 the total number of American troops exposed to chemical agents from some of the thousands of aged and corroding munitions that the troops found in abandoned stockpiles or came across in roadside bombs made from those old munitions. The latest accounts mostly fit a pattern that is now familiar. They include two Army bomb disposal technicians who picked up a mustard shell at a roadside bombing in 2004; two Navy disposal technicians who handled mustard shells in separate incidents in 2006 and 2007; and members of an Army infantry platoon who said they were denied decontamination and swift medical evaluation after inhaling mustard vapors in 2008, when soldiers were destroying a buried chemical-munitions stockpile.

“It was a failure of leadership,” said Reid Wilbraham, a former sergeant and squad leader in B Company, First Battalion, 14th Regiment, who said that his platoon leader had pressed more senior officers to allow soldiers to be examined but was rebuffed for days.

Mr. Wilbraham said that while the two soldiers with chemical burns had been evacuated to a military hospital and then to Germany, those with inhalation complaints were told to remain at their posts.

“They told us to burn our uniforms and take showers,” Mr. Wilbraham said. The soldiers may have contaminated each other in the close quarters they shared, he said.

Mr. Wilbraham also noted that even though the Army had known that mustard shells had been found in the area where the platoon operated, and that just weeks before Marines had recovered stocks of corroded mustard shells at Al Muthanna State Establishment, the center of Iraq’s chemical weapons production in the 1980s, the Army did not take steps to ensure the soldiers’ well-being.

“We weren’t prepared at all, not in the least,” he said. “It was a failure, a failure at all levels. I failed. Everybody failed. And failures need to be studied so they don’t happen again.”

Matt Krakowski, Mr. Wilbraham’s former platoon leader, confirmed that account, and added that after soldiers complained the Army had assigned an investigating officer who looked into the demolition but did not address the Army’s failure to follow its own medical treatment guidelines.

Mr. Krakowski also provided records — including sworn statements his soldiers gave to the officer investigating the demolition — that confirmed his and his soldiers’ presence at the incident.

The accounts of still other troops and veterans suggested that there were more instances of chemical exposure, and could be a larger number of exposed veterans than the services have acknowledged or perhaps even know about.

One helicopter pilot described a medical flight in April 2007 for a soldier burned by mustard agent.

The pilot said he had not been informed that the patient was a chemical casualty until after the flight when he and his crew were told by the military hospital that they would need to decontaminate their aircraft.

Clayton Swansen, a former Navy ordnance disposal technician, said he was part of a team that recovered a leaking mustard shell near Qaim in 2007 after a suicide truck bomb at a government compound.

The shell had been carried, he said, from the bomb site to a dud pit on a nearby Marine outpost. “Some other guys, probably on foot patrol, had found it and brought it back,” Mr. Swansen said. These Marines may have been contaminated, too, he added.

The details and incident accounts, like those provided by Mr. Swansen and Mr. Krakowski, have been disclosed by rank-and-file participants, many of whom said military secrecy had undermined their care or ability even to register with Veterans Affairs.

Jonathan Martin, a former Marine who was exposed to mustard agent, said that when he tried to tell the Department of Veterans Affairs about his exposure he had been doubted. “It would be nice to get some recognition that this actually happened,” he said. (The Marine Corps confirmed for The Times that Mr. Martin had been exposed.)

As the services released details of their medical efforts, Phillip Carter, an Iraq war veteran who leads the veterans’ research program at the Center for a New American Security, said it was not clear the outreach would be sufficient. Many veterans might not know they were exposed, he said, or will have no records indicating exposure.

“If they only look for people who say there were exposed they will not find them all,” he said. Rather, he suggested that the military “crawl through the data” of battlefield reports, postdeployment health surveys and medical records to find and register victims it might otherwise miss.

Dr. Coleen Baird, the environmental medicine program manager at the Army’s Public Health Command, said the Army did plan to review postdeployment health surveys and was trying to identify rosters of explosive ordnance disposal units — whose members were among those most at risk — to identify other veterans for assessment.

As the services worked through details of medical outreach, the Navy also said that it was reviewing the records of two ordnance disposal technicians, Senior Chief Ted Pickett and former Petty Officer Jeremiah Foxwell, and would be considering them for Purple Hearts.

Neither sailor was submitted for the medal after inhaling mustard agent from a chemical shell used after a roadside bombing in Baghdad in 2006.

Senior Chief Pickett did not wish to comment on his own case, but he said that Mr. Foxwell, who has been granted a partial medical disability for respiratory problems, should have received the award. “He definitely deserved it,” he said. “There just weren’t any legs for it at the time.”

Cmdr. Ryan Perry, a Navy spokesman, said the Navy had begun examining the records. “We are committed to taking the appropriate follow-on action to ensure our people get the recognition they deserved,” he said.

Mr. Foxwell said Commander Perry had called him to discuss the exposure, and told him that Mr. Hagel “has expressed that he wants the situation fixed.”

John Ismay contributed reporting from New York.

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