The Pentagon is notifying the former members of a disbanded metro-east Army Reserve unit that they might have been exposed to chemical weapons when an Iraqi ammunition depot was destroyed in March 1991.
The notice comes almost a year after a helicopter crew from a unit formerly stationed at Scott Air Force Base told Pentagon and presidential investigators that they flew a special chemical weapons detection team into an ammunition storage complex and the team acted as if they had discovered chemical weapons.
The notification is not based on their story. Instead, it is the standard letter being sent to the 100,000 veterans who the Pentagon acknowledge last month might have been exposed to chemical weapons, based on a yearlong analysis of what was blown up at the Khamisiyah ammunition complex and the wind conditions at the time.
"I got it last week," said Gil Stone, the pilot on the March 6, 1991, flight. "It's the standard form letter.
"I'm not surprised. A couple months ago, I got a call from some special assistant to some undersecretary of the Army for Gulf War illness. He did all he could to convince me that we didn't go to Khamisiyah."
The July 24 letter is signed by Bernard Rostker, the special assistant secretary of defense for Gulf War illnesses. The letter states that chemical agents likely were released during demolition March 4 and again March 10, but that the only exposure of U.S. troops was thought to have been March 10.
"When rockets were destroyed in the pit area at Khamisiyah on March 10, 1991, the nerve agents sarin and cyclosarin may have been released into the air," it reads. "If you were with your unit at this time, you may have been in an area where exposure to a very low level of nerve agents was possible. "However, our analysis shows that the exposure levels would have been too low to activate chemical alarms or to cause any symptoms at the time."
The letter goes on to state that little is known about the long-term effects from "a brief, low-level exposure" but that "current medical evidence indicates that long-term health problems are unlikely." Veterans' advocates dispute the Pentagon's claim. They say that studies before and after the war have shown that low-level exposure to chemical agents can cause permanent health problems.
For years, the Pentagon denied Iraq had used or even stationed chemical weapons anywhere in the area during the Gulf War.
That changed last year, when Defense Department officials acknowledged that U.N. investigators had determined chemical weapons were stored at the giant Khamisiyah complex in southern Iraq.
Army engineers destroyed many of the ammunition bunkers in a series of explosions in March 1991.
In September, Stone and two crew chiefs on the flight, Ernie Rangel and Jim Reichert, told the Belleville News-Democrat that publicity about Khamisiyah led them to think it was the place they flew a four-man team wearing special chemical suits and carrying chemical-testing equipment.
While on the ground, Reichert and Rangel found one artillery shell on the ground fizzing and another in a pool of liquid seeping from the shell.
The chemical team told the two men to leave the area, tested the shells and burned their chemical suits before reboarding the helicopter.
Both men have suffered from a variety of health problems they blame on their service in the Persian Gulf.
Pentagon investigators and the Presidential Advisory Commission on Gulf War Illnesses interviewed the crew, but neither the identities of the chemical team nor their findings have been revealed.
Reichert was out of town last week, but his wife confirmed he had received the letter. As of Friday, Rangel had not.
Stone, Rangel and Reichert were members of the Army Reserve's 7th Battalion 158th Aviation Regiment, which was stationed at Scott until it was dissolved in 1995 because of defense cuts.
In 1991, the unit was sent to the Persian Gulf. With elements in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, their missions included flying then-Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf to the signing of the cease-fire agreement.
Today, former members are scattered across the country.
Kim Kuehn, a former platoon sergeant who now is stationed at Fort McCoy, Wis., said most of the former unit members he has contacted have received the July 24 letter.
"They're finally admitting that some of these guys are genuinely sick," he said. "It's about time."
Originally Published, August 10, 1997 , Belleville News Democrat,
(c) 1997, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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