WASHINGTON - Pentagon officials said Tuesday at least 15,000 troops - and maybe many more- may have been exposed to chemical weapons after two explosions at an Iraqi ammunition depot at the end of the Gulf War.
Also on Tuesday, investigators for the presidential advisory panel investigating
illnesses plaguing Gulf War veterans said they are taking seriously the
story of three
local veterans who flew a chemical detection team into the Kamisiyah ammunition complex between the explosions.
In a series of statements since June, the Pentagon has admitted that
chemical weapons were released when Army engineers blew up a bunker on
March 4, 1991, and
again when they destroyed a pit of weapons six days later.
At a Pentagon press conference Tuesday, Assistant Secretary of Defense Ken Bacon said that, based on wind patterns and the number of weapons in the pit, a large number of troops may have been under the chemical cloud released March 10, 1991.
The CIA is preparing a computer model that will compare the fallout cloud to the troops believed to be in the area at the time.
"But I think we have to think in terms of big numbers. Bigger than 15,000, certainly," Bacon said.
Bacon would not comment on a report last week in New York's Newsday that the CIA model will show that 130,000 troops may have been exposed to low-level chemical contamination.
Meanwhile, investigators for the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses are looking into claims that military commanders suspected chemical weapons at Kamisiyah but allowed the demolition to proceed.
On Tuesday, they talked to Gilmore Stone, one of three local veterans who flew a chemical detection team into Kamisiyah on March 6, 1991.
On Monday, investigators talked to Jim Reichert and Ernie Rangel, who flew the mission with Stone.
The vets, members of a now-disbanded local Army Reserve helicopter unit, said the chemical team took samples from leaking weapons at the depot but did not reveal what they found.
Committee spokesman Gary Caruso said the next step is to cross-check dates and otherinformation to see whether other evidence exists to support the veterans' story.
"We want to take all this information and look it over very thoroughly," Caruso said. "We want to be careful about everything we say on this issue. That's part of the integrity of this committee - that we've been very, very careful. We want to continue to do that."
The committee's final report should be completed in December.
Veterans have long suspected that contact with Iraqi chemical or biological
agents contributed to
the chronic illnesses afflicting thousands of Gulf War soldiers. Rangel and Reichert have suffered from a variety of illnesses since the flight.
Bacon said the Pentagon has asked the National Academy of Sciences and
its Institute of Medicine to undertake a study of the military's approach
to Gulf War illnesses.
Orignally Published, October 2, 1996 , Belleville News Democrat,
(c) 1996, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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