U.S. troops who unknowingly blew up hundreds of Iraqi rockets filled with deadly nerve agents after the Persian Gulf War should have been alerted to the danger, recently declassified documents show.
But the word never got passed before they blew the charges in March 1991. And it didn't get passed again eight months later when the Pentagon sent senior commanders a message that tons of chemicals weapons had been discovered, including a dramatic description of a United Nations technician being drenched with nerve agent spurting from a warhead.
The Pentagon has admitted that almost 100,000 troops possibly were exposed to extremely low levels of nerve agent as the result of the demolition. Those troops include the members of a former Army Reserve helicopter unit stationed at Scott Air Force Base that was disbanded in 1996.
Gulf veterans have long believed that chemical agents might be responsible for the mysterious illnesses that some of them suffer.
The Pentagon released a heavily edited version of the message in 1996, when it admitted that troops released chemical weapons when they blew up the giant Khamisiyah ammunition depot in March 1991, which included about 1,400 rockets filled with nerve agent.
Government officials say it wasn't until then that they connected the site uncovered by United Nations inspectors with one destroyed by American troops.
But now, a more complete version of the November 1991 message - and other documents on the Pentagon's Gulflink site on the Internet - raise the question of why it took so long to make the connection. New Gulflink documents include:
The rockets, located in a pit the size of nine football fields, were the remains of almost 2,200 rockets originally at Khamisiyah. Some were in a bunker blown up by American troops on March 4, 1991, and others were in the pit on March 10, Pentagon officials now believe.
The message states that area was clearly blown up by ''locally placed explosives'' instead of by bombing and gives precise geographic coordinates that could easily be compared to known positions of American troops. The message also describes how an explosive ordinance disposal technician, wearing a special chemical suit with its own air supply, drilled into a rocket warhead to obtain a sample of the agent inside:
''Although the drilling was very difficult, the drill suddenly entered the rocket and was immediately forced back. A four-meter stream of Sarin, under considerable pressure, sprayed from the rocket and hit the EOD technician under the jaw with considerable force. Approximately one-third of the rocket's contents escaped.''
Patrick Eddington, a former CIA analyst who quit in 1996 over the agency's handling of Gulf War illnesses, said he showed many of the same documents to CIA officials as early as 1994 but was ignored.
''That's total incompetence,'' he said last week. ''There's no other way to describe it - it was operational negligence.
''I've seen no evidence to indicate to me that they've learned anything from it at all.''
The Pentagon still maintains that it never had reason to believe the troops had blown up chemical weapons.
Pentagon spokesman Maj. Tom Gilroy said officers who were in command at Khamisiyah were as surprised as anyone to learn they had blown up chemical weapons.
''They said they didn't think anything was there,'' Gilroy said. ''So what are you going to go by?''
Originally Published, March 1, 1998, Belleville News Democrat, Belleville,
(c) 1998, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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