In response to a New York Times investigation, the undersecretary of the Army apologized this week for the military’s mishandling of more than 600 service members who reportedly suffered from chemical exposure in Iraq. After being exposed to potentially lethal amounts of sulfur mustard and sarin gas, US troops often received inadequate medical treatment, gag orders, and found themselves ineligible for Purple Heart medals. Due to the fact that many of the chemical weapons were American-designed artillery shells manufactured in European countries, the Pentagon neglected to inform the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence of the proliferation of dangerous chemical munitions being uncovered in Iraq.
On May 15, 2004, then-Staff Sgt. James Burns of the 752nd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company and Pfc. Michael Yandell were exposed to sarin gas from a 152-millimeter binary sarin shell. After receiving substandard medical treatment, Sgt. Burns and Pfc. Yandell returned to the field and began suffering long-term symptoms of nerve agent exposure. Burns’ medical records from late 2004 described memory lapses, reading difficulties, problems with balance, and tingling in his legs.
“They put a gag order on all of us — the security detail, us, the clinic, everyone,” Burns recalled. “We were briefed to tell family members that we were exposed to ‘industrial chemicals,’ because our case was classified top secret.”
In July 2008, six Marines reported exposure to mustard gas from an artillery shell. On August 16, 2008, five soldiers had been exposed to mustard gas while destroying a weapons cache. The blisters on their skin were the size of their hands. In April 2010, seven Iraqi police officers became exposed to a dozen M110 mustard shells found near the Tigris River.
In an article published last year, The New York Times initially reported at least 17 American service members and seven Iraqi police officers had been exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq. The Pentagon later acknowledged that at least 629 troops have reported chemical agent exposure.
After Iraq invaded Iran on September 22, 1980, Saddam Hussein began purchasing US-designed artillery shells manufactured in European countries and later filled with chemical agents in Iraq. The United States had been manufacturing M110 artillery shells filled with mustard agent and white phosphorous before selling the designs to Western countries. According to confidential United Nations (UN) documents, Italy and Spain sold 85,000 empty M110-type shells to Iraq by 1988.
In the summer of 2006, the US Army found over 2,400 nerve-agent rockets at a former Republican Guard compound named Camp Taji. As the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reviewed claims concerning Iraq’s weapons programs, the Pentagon neglected to inform the Committee since many of the artillery shells discovered had been designed and manufactured in the West.
Repeatedly misdiagnosed, troops suffering from chemical exposure often received mediocre medical treatment and found themselves ineligible to receive Purple Heart medals. Although the Medical Command requires blood and urine tests for chemically exposed patients for the rest of their lives, many troops suffering long-term symptoms did not receive these tests. Officers were reportedly encouraged to remain silent about incidents of chemical exposure and threatened with gag orders.
On Wednesday, Undersecretary of the Army Brad Carson apologized for the lack of proper medical treatment received and for the military’s refusal to award chemically exposed troops with Purple Heart medals. After reversing a previous decision, Carson said the Army had recently awarded a Purple Heart to a soldier burned by mustard gas.
“To me, the scandal is that we had protocols in place and the medical community knew what they were, and yet we failed in some cases to implement this across the theater,” admitted Carson. “That was a mistake, and I apologize for that. I apologize for past actions and am going to fix it going forward.”
Insurgents have been utilizing the abandoned stockpiles of roughly 5,000 deteriorating chemical munitions in order to build deadlier Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). In June 2014, the Islamic State captured the Muthanna State Establishment, where Iraq produced chemical agents during the 1980s. The Iraqi government told the UN that approximately 2,500 corroded chemical rockets had been inside the compound when the Islamic State secured the facility. Before the militants shut down the surveillance cameras, Iraqi officials reportedly witnessed the terrorists absconding with military equipment.
During the Vietnam War, the US military used a chemical defoliant named Agent Orange that resulted in increased rates of cancer, respiratory disorders, mental disabilities, genetic diseases, and birth defects. Instead of informing the troops about health risks caused by exposure, the military refused to release that information. Several corporations, including Dow Chemical and Monsanto, received contracts during the war to manufacture Agent Orange for the government.