An area Gulf War veteran says he saw Iraqi chemical weapons stored at an airfield about 70 miles from where U.S. troops blew up chemical agents at war's end.
And a Pentagon spokesman said he might be right - the latest in a series of admissions by Defense Department officials that they might have been wrong in denying veterans could have been exposed to nerve agents and other chemical weapons.
Oscar Russell of St. Louis said he saw the chemical weapons when he and other members of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment battled a contingent of the elite Iraqi Republican Guards on Feb. 28, 1991.
The end-of-war cease-fire was only a few hours old when the troopers were sent to Ar Rumaylah, an Iraqi city near Basra, north of Kuwait.
"A helicopter went down and our unit was called to go up there," he said.
"The next thing we knew, somebody was firing at us. It turned out it was the Republican Guards."
The Iraqis mounted a strong defense of the Rumaylah airfield until something strange happened.
"One of our companies was nicknamed the 'Jolly Rogers.' They had flag with a skull and crossbones flying from one of their tracks," Russell said.
"When the Iraqis saw that Bradley, they threw down their weapons and surrendered."
He didn't think about it at the time, but later realized the Iraqis must have seen the symbol they used on chemical weapons and thought the Jolly Rogers were about to gas them.
The troopers dismounted from their tanks and fighting vehicles and began clearing a network of underground bunkers.
"There were a lot of 'aid stations' out there - they all had red crosses on them - and all they had in them was munitions," Russell said. "Some of them had skulls and crossbones. I didn't think about it at the time, but I guess those were chemical weapons."
Russell, who was a gunner on an M1A1 Abrams tank, received an Army Commendation Medal with "V" device for his valor in the battle.
He does not know what happened to the ammunition - after the battle, another unit relieved the cavalry troopers.
For years, Defense Department officials denied any Iraqi chemical weapons were deployed in what was called the "Kuwaiti Theater of Operations" - despite veterans' claims they saw and were made sick by chemical weapons.
Last year, the Pentagon leaders acknowledged engineers apparently released chemical agents when they blew up parts of the massive Kamisiyah ammunition complex in Iraq, but said no one realized it at the time.
Since then, the 10-member team investigating Gulf War illnesses has expanded to more than 100 and has begun looking for other possible chemical sites.
"Rumaylah is one of several reported areas that is being looked at," said Army Lt. Col. Donna Boltz, a Pentagon spokesman. "Oscar Russell needs to call the team - they'd like to talk to him about what he saw."
What Pentagon leaders have not explained is why they didn't look for chemical weapons at the end of the war despite months of worrying that Saddam Hussein would use them.
Declassified documents posted to the Pentagon's Gulflink site on the Internet indicate planners suspected chemical weapons were at the Rumaylah airfield before the air war began and repeatedly bombed it.
Patrick Eddington, who quit as a Central Intelligence Agency analyst in a disagreement with the CIA about Iraq's use of chemical weapons, said the skull and crossbones was one of several markings the Iraqis used to signify chemical weapons.
A presidential advisory committee last week criticized the Pentagon for not doing enough to investigate Gulf War illnesses and chemical weapons, but said there was not proof the illnesses came from chemical exposures.
Also last week, researchers in Texas said at least some of the illnesses might have resulted from exposures to combinations of chemicals, including low levels of nerve gas.
Originally Published, January 14, 1997, Belleville News Democrat,
(c) 1997, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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