Military commanders suspected almost immediately that chemical weapons had been released by blowing up a huge Iraqi complex and sent a team to gather evidence, according to local Gulf War veterans.
But after the team gathered evidence, they kept the results secret. Four days later, troops set off a second round of explosions at the Kamisiyah weapons depot, releasing more nerve gas.
While the Pentagon has ignored three local reservists' story, they have now attracted the attention of a presidential advisory panel.
The Pentagon has admitted that more than 5,000 troops may have been exposed to low levels of nerve gas. Other estimates have ranged as high as 130,000.
The reservists previously said they thought they flew the chemical team into Iraq's Kamisiyah weapons storage site on either March 3 or March 4, 1991 - the day Army engineers blew up the first bunkers containing rockets filled with nerve gas.
But Gilmore Stone, who piloted the helicopter carrying the chemical team, has now found a letter to his wife dated March 7, 1991, in which he tells her the mission happened "yesterday."
"Our passengers went up to take soil samples to see if any chemical weapons were stored in these bunkers," he wrote.
The new date casts further doubts on Pentagon claims that the military did not know until this year that troops had been exposed to nerve gas when they blew up parts of Kamisiyah in early March 1991.
"I think that was the whole reason these guys were going there," said Stone, of Hazelwood, Mo. "I have a vague recollection that these guys were reacting to something.
"They said there was a possibility that a bunker full of chemical weapons had been destroyed by either engineers or U.S. Air Force bombing," he said.
Although the chemical team wore uniforms, Stone wrote in the letter and said Monday that he believes the team members may not have been in the military.
Stone said he will share the letter and his recollections, possibly
as early as today, with investigators for the Presidential Advisory Committee
on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, a group created by President Clinton last
year to help get to the bottom of reports of mysterious,
debilitating illnesses among many Gulf War veterans.
On Monday, committee investigators talked by phone to Jim Reichert and Ernie Rangel, who flew on the mission with Stone. The three were members of a former Army Reserve helicopter unit at Scott that was activated for the Gulf War.
Reichert, who lives in Columbia, said he had a conference call
with committee investigators
Monday and told them everything he could remember about the flight and the members of the chemical team.
Rangel, who now lives in Florida, also spoke to the investigators Monday. One of the investigators made an appointment to interview Rangel in person today, the day before an Advisory Committee meeting in Tampa.
"He sounded like he had a genuine interest. It shocked the hell out of me when he said he'd like to come and see me," Rangel said. "Nobody from the Pentagon has gotten in touch with me yet."
The Belleville News-Democrat first reported in July 1995 Reichert's story of the strange flight, including how he spotted leaking and fizzing shells and how the chemical team burned their chemical protective suits after taking samples.
This summer, after news reports that Army engineers had released chemical weapons at Kamisiyah, Reichert, Rangel and Stone realized they had flown into the complex.
Although Stone has not been sick, both Reichert and Rangel have had medical problems since the flight.
Repeated requests for Pentagon comment on their story have gone unanswered. Also Monday, the Pentagon said there is "no basis" for a report that Desert Storm commanders in bunkers protected against chemical weapons told troops not to worry about reports of nerve gas on the battlefield.
The Birmingham News on Sunday, citing log reports compiled for Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, said U.S. commanders ''sealed themselves into protective shelters in the opening days of the Persian Gulf War, and told troops to disregard repeated warnings that a toxic cloud from bombed chemical munitions was descending upon them.''
''We have reviewed the logs in question and find no basis for the reporter's conclusion that commanders sheltered themselves while ordering troops to disregard reports of a toxic cloud,'' said a statement issued Monday by the Pentagon.
Originally Published, Oct. 1, 1996 , Belleville News Democrat,
(c) 1996, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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