A special chemical weapons detection team saw evidence of suspected chemical weapons at an Iraqi ammunition depot before it was blown up by U.S. troops but didn't tell them, local Gulf War veterans say.
Their report contradicts Pentagon claims that there were no indications of chemical weapons at the Kamisiyah ammunition depot when the Army's 37th Engineer Battalion destroyed it. Many of the engineers are now sick and believe they released chemical weapons when they blew up parts of the depot on March 4, 1991.
The local veterans, two of whom suffer from medical problems they blame on their service in the Gulf, said they watched a four-man biological-chemical detection team take samples from leaking artillery shells as well as other suspected chemical warfare contamination.
But contrary to Army doctrine, the detection team did not alert nearby soldiers who were placing explosives in other bunkers. Nor did they mark the site with chemical warning signs.
But detection team members burned their own chemical protective suits before leaving the site, the local aviators said.
"They thought there was something there back then," said Gil Stone,
who piloted the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter that shuttled the detection
team one day from Kuwait to a series of ammunition sites. "We were right
middle of that ammo complex."
Stone and crew chiefs Jim Reichert and Ernie Rangel were members of the 7th Battalion 158th Aviation Regiment, a former Army Reserve helicopter unit at Scott Air Force Base that was mobilized for the Gulf War in late 1990.
They say they were told to take special precautions, including donning chemical protection suits and taking medications to counter the effects of chemical agents, when they flew the detection team into a series of ammunition sites about March 3, 1991.
Reichert, a 33-year-old Columbia man who served as a crew chief, first told the Belleville News-Democrat in July 1995 about the flight and his medical problems that have continued since.
Stone, 32, lives in Hazelwood, Mo., and Rangel, 31, now lives near Naples, Fla. Rangel flew along as a door gunner and also has suffered severe medical problems.
Stone and Rangel back Reichert's story that the detection team became excited when they found one artillery shell lying on the ground fizzing and another in a pool of liquid seeping from the shell.
"They told us to put our (gas) masks on and get out of there," Reichert said.
"They were all over the place, checking with their test equipment," Rangel said. "They wouldn't tell us what they found, but it's interesting how both of us have been sick ever since."
Before leaving the site, the detection team burned their chemical suits and uniforms and donned clean uniforms they carried in a bag, the aviators said. But the aviators had no spare uniforms and had to remain in their possibly contaminated suits.
The aviators said they ran into American troops at the site but they didn't know to what unit the troops belonged. The troops warned them away from some of the ammunition bunkers because the bunkers were wired with explosives.
None of the aviators ever heard of Kamisiyah until recent news reports, but they said the ammunition depot was near Tallil Air Base and the city of An Nasiryah - the location for Kamisiyah described by the Pentagon.
And Reichert said he recalled the site as Tel Al Lahn - the alternate name for Kamisiyah given by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Kenneth Bacon at a June 21 press briefing.
At that briefing, Bacon said the Pentagon had recently learned that 122mm chemical rockets had been stored in one bunker of the Kamisiyah depot when it was destroyed by the 37th Engineers the first week of March 1991, just after the Gulf War ended.
He also said that chemical teams found no indications of chemical weapons at the site at the time.
Last week, a former congressional investigator released a long-classified intelligence report to the New York Times showing that the government and military commands were alerted to the presence of hundreds of chemical weapons in the Kamisiyah depot and surrounding area in November 1991.
Pentagon officials said they didn't realize when the report came in that U.S. troops had been in the area and only recently connected it to the 37th Engineers.
The Times reported that, of 37 former members of the battalion, 27 have said they were seriously ill, many with mysterious infections and gastrointestinal ailments.
And another newspaper reported this week that Gulf War military logs omit eight days when troops destroyed a cache of Iraqi chemical weapons.
The logs provided regular assessments to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf on chemical weapons threats during the war.
Gulfwatch, a watchdog group of Gulf veterans, provided the logs to The Birmingham News and called the omission further evidence of a military cover-up of Gulf War Syndrome.
Entries are missing for March 4-11, the week troops and engineers spent examining the Kamisiyah ammunition depot and blowing it up.
Pentagon spokesman Jim Turner told the News-Democrat he had no information about the metro-east aviators' story but would pass it on to the Pentagon team investigating Gulf War illnesses.
Originally Published, September 3, 1996, Belleville News Democrat,
(c) 1996, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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