14.   Incident O

a. Initial Reports

The 1/11 reported gas at 11:54 AM on February 26 and presumably assumed MOPP Level 4. A brief log entry indicates Task Force Ripper also went to MOPP Level 4. The written evidence does not specify whether the 1/11 initiated or only passed the alert that prompted the increase in MOPP level. Task Force Ripper’s chronology notes at 11:50 AM (four minutes before 1/11’s entry) gas reported by 1/11, going to MOPP-4. Commanders called an all clear beginning at 12:34 PM.[190] Figure 30 shows approximate unit locations.

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Figure 30.  Incident O approximate locations

b. Additional Evidence

The 1/11 commanding officer recalled the alert, agreed the 1/11 was in MOPP Level 4 for about 40 minutes, but could not remember additional details.[191] None of the other witnesses we interviewed could recall this incident.

c. Analysis

The 11th Marines logged no CWA detections related to this incident, and no one reported casualties or remembered details. The originating unit and location are unclear, and we found insufficient additional evidence to permit detailed analysis.

d. Assessment

We assess the likelihood of CWA presence as indeterminate based on the small amount of information.

15. Incident P

a. Initial Reports

At 3:00 PM on February 26, 1991, the 1/11 initiated a CWA alert. According to a contemporaneous Task Force Papa Bear log:

At approximately 1500 [3:00 PM], the 1/11 reported taking incoming chemical rounds. Apparently, someone observed yellow smoke and mistook it for chemical [warfare] agents. The Task Force was place[d] in MOPP 4 until the CAMs and Fox vehicle could verify the absence of chemicals. No chemical agents were detected and the all clear was given approximately 10 minutes later.[192]

Other Marine Corps chronologies and logs documented this event.[193] Figure 31 shows approximate unit locations at this time.

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Figure 31.  Incident P approximate location

b. Additional Evidence

The Task Force Papa Bear NBC officer explained what he thought caused the alert in an interview shortly after the ground war ended. He said that before the ground war started, his unit received intelligence indicating Iraq’s tank units would use yellow markers if they expected a chemical attack or if they had been involved in a chemical attack. He believed somebody from the 11th Marines saw friendly yellow smoke and misconstrued it as a chemical attack.[194] Another Marine told us intelligence suggested Iraq’s artillery units would warn their own troops of impending CWA attacks by firing red star cluster rounds. This Marine stated he never saw such rounds during the war.[195]

In 1997 the Task Force Papa Bear NBC officer told us someone from the 1/11 sounded the alert over the regimental tactical radio network. He recalled that while he and a Task Force Papa Bear operations officer worked the radios attempting to gather information about the alert, a Marine (whose name or unit he could not recall) informed him combat engineers had used the yellow smoke to warn others they were about to blow up some enemy ammunition near Task Force Papa Bear’s location.[196]

A Task Force Papa Bear operations officer testified he questioned the radio operator and tried to identify a delivery means for the suspected CWA, but the radio operator saw nothing—incoming artillery, aircraft, or helicopters over his position—to indicate a delivery means.[197]

A 1/11 operations officer attributed the yellow smoke to another source. In his personal wartime journal,[198] he wrote that the 1/11 went to MOPP Level 4 based on information from the 3/11 that the 5/11 had used two yellow smoke grenades for a gasoline (refueling) signal. In the confusion the refueling signal was misconstrued as a signal for a CWA round. This officer recalled that a forward observer might have noted the source was a smoke grenade.[199] Another Marine who saw the smoke also described what to him looked like a smoke grenade.[200] Yet another Task Force Papa Bear Marine said yellow smoke was the standard signal used to alert other units that CWA had been detected.[201]

Meanwhile, the Task Force Papa Bear Fox crew dispatched to investigate the smoke searched for CWA but detected nothing. Elements of Task Force Papa Bear including the 3/9, 1st Tank Battalion, and the 1/1 used chemical agent monitors (CAM) at their positions and got no positive detections, indicating that those units were not under any type of chemical attack.[202] The 1/11 NBC NCO did not recall conducting M256 or CAM tests,[203] but the 1/11 operations officer’s personal journal noted monitor/survey teams performed tests of some kind indicating CWA was not present.[204]

According to the Task Force Papa Bear NBC officer, once the Fox crew could find no CWA present, they passed the word to other units over the radio networks and notified the Task Force Papa Bear executive officer (XO), who was standing outside the Fox in full MOPP gear.[205] According to the Task Force Papa Bear NBC officer’s account shortly after the war, he and an operations officer were on the radios trying to assure people this was a friendly pop-up signal flare when they got hit with enemy artillery, which immediately sent everybody into MOPP-4 again.[206] The Task Force Papa Bear operations officer recalled the incoming rounds were high-explosive (meaning they were not CWA rounds) and the incident was uneventful.[207] The Task Force Papa Bear NBC officer saw explosions from three to six rounds that landed in the middle of the Task Force’s position. Everyone was still in MOPP 4 when the artillery hit and, to his knowledge, no one was hurt. He stated the entire incident probably lasted 10 to 15 minutes. Commanders initiated selective unmasking procedures; he, the battalion commander, and the executive officer were the first to unmask.[208]

During this investigation we learned another 1/11 operations officer initiated the alert. He told us he heard a popping sound, looked to his left, and saw three to five yellow smoke streamers from what he assumed were grenades heading towards the ground approximately 800 meters ( mile) to the left of the 1/11 command post (Figure 31 shows unit locations). He said they resembled 155mm smoke rounds, but were much smaller. He knew of no intelligence linking yellow smoke and chemical warfare attacks. However, he thought this was an unusual event. Uncertain of the smoke’s source and to be on the safe side, he stated he ordered it reported as a gas attack. He noted that approximately 15 minutes later he heard the source attributed to armored vehicles that had released smoke grenades.[209]

The Task Force Papa Bear XO recalled being briefed after the event and discussing a yellow round mistaken for the start of a chemical warfare attack. He said he was certain this incident was not a chemical attack since he recalls no enemy artillery attacks. He said Iraq’s troops were retreating and offering no organized resistance.[210] The 1/11 NBC NCO believed the smoke’s source was friendly and he recalled confirmation it was friendly.[211] The 5/11 operations officer said no incoming artillery hit before the alert; he believed this incident was one of several false alarms.[212]

c. Analysis

Several official unit logs described these events and witnesses’ testimony provided additional details and several theories about the source and purpose of the yellow smoke. It appears previous intelligence reports increased awareness of Iraq’s potential chemical warfare attacks for many Marines (e.g., Task Force Papa Bear’s operations officer and Task Force Ripper’s NBC officer) and likely played a role in this incident. Despite these reports, we were unable to locate any intelligence information about Iraq’s use of yellow smoke for chemical attack warnings. However, we did locate a declassified Intelligence Information Report similar in content to the Task Force Ripper NBC officer’s account: "The Iraqi army uses a red and green (combined) star cluster flare as a signal that chemical weapons are in use and that protective masks should be worn [emphasis in original]."[213]

Despite that similarity, evidence does not support the theories about the yellow smoke’s source and purpose. It is possible explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) specialists used yellow smoke grenades,[214] but we could not tie this incident to an EOD event or signal.[215] Armored vehicle crews also may have fired the yellow smoke, but these vehicles do not normally do so.[216] At least one witness believed the 5/11 was the source of the yellow smoke, but the 5/11 operations officer said yellow smoke was never a standard signal used in his unit and he did not recall using smoke as a signaling device.[217] Another Marine said yellow smoke was a standard signal to warn others of chemical warfare agent detections, but no other witness corroborated his statement. The 1/11 NBC NCO believed the source of the yellow smoke was friendly and the Task Force Papa Bear NBC officer believed someone misinterpreted a friendly yellow marker (smoke). Ultimately, no witness was able to authoritatively identify the yellow smoke’s source or purpose.

We found no evidence suggesting incoming enemy fire precipitated this incident. The Task Force Papa Bear XO stated Iraq’s forces were retreating and failing to mount organized resistance. He was certain this was not a chemical warfare attack. However, although he recalled no enemy artillery attacks before or after the incident, logs and witnesses’ accounts confirm incoming artillery hit after the Marines determined CWA was not present.[218]

Many units reported testing but none reported detecting CWA. The Task Force Papa Bear Fox vehicle searched for CWA and detected none. Some units used chemical agent monitors. We note, however, the Fox and the CAM were designed for detection at close range to suspected CWA contamination, and the negative results reported indicate only that agents were not present in sufficient concentrations at those particular locations. In addition to a lack of CWA detections, we are unaware of any chemical warfare agent-related casualties, which we would expect if CWA was present before the Marines increased their protective posture.

d. Assessment

We believe CWA presence in this incident was unlikely. We cannot assess this event as definitely not because we do not know with certainty the source of the yellow smoke. No one detected any agents. Despite several theories about the source of the yellow smoke, none are supported by fact. However, evidence strongly suggests Iraq’s artillery and CWA were not involved. The Marine who initiated the alert did so to be cautious. No incoming artillery fire preceded the event and no one reported CWA exposure. Most witnesses believed, and all contemporaneous logs documented, that the yellow smoke was mistaken for Iraq’s chemical attack warning or CWA, and a chemical attack did not occur. In summary, all evidence suggests this event was triggered as a safety precaution—not in reaction to an enemy artillery attack or due to indications of CWA presence.

16. Incident Q

a. Initial Reports

After we published our interim report on the 11th Marines in November 1998, a 3d Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment (3/12) veteran called our toll-free number. He said he had information countering our observation in the narrative that we had found no evidence of chemical warfare munitions in the 11th Marines area. He told us that on approximately March 2, 1991, after the cease fire, he and members of his unit recovered two self-propelled howitzers that Iraq’s forces had abandoned southwest of Kuwait City near Kuwait International Airport. He stated one of these vehicles contained chemical rounds, described as rusty, green in overall color, and with yellow print in English, Gas-VX (VX is a nerve agent). The witness said the vehicles also carried conventional high-explosive rounds painted the same green shade and bluish-gray anti-tank penetrator rounds. He, his commanding officer (of the 3/12’s headquarters battery, a captain), and a lance corporal unloaded the rounds onto the ground; the captain told him engineers would later blow them up. The interviewee said he and another corporal drove the unloaded howitzers to regimental headquarters. He did not know what subsequently happened to the ammunition.[219] Figure 32 shows the unit’s approximate location when the howitzers were disarmed.

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Figure 32.  Incident Q approximate location

The same Marine further stated that night at a location he did not recall, he awoke in his sleeping position (hole with overhead cover) between about 10:00 PM and midnight with extreme tightness in his chest, as though he had a belt around it. He said he could not catch his breath enough to call for help even though his buddy was sleeping in a separate hole he estimated at only 10 to 15 feet away. The incident lasted a few minutes and then he recalls either falling back to sleep or passing out. He stated when he awoke at about 2:00 AM to go on shift, he felt normal with no after effects. In response to our questions, he said at the time he noted no unusual smells or vision problems, he did not believe he could have walked, he did not seek medical attention, and he knew of no one else who experienced similar symptoms. He said he never had such symptoms before and did not have a history of respiratory illness. He thought chemical exposure pretreatment pills or possibly CWA exposure might have caused the incident, but he had no specific basis for that belief.[220]

b. Additional Evidence

In follow-up interviews this veteran said the captain passed the ammunition out of the vehicle to the witness, who passed it to another corporal, bucket-brigade style. The howitzer held about 30 rounds, and the witness believed at least two had the VX marking. This witness did not recall pointing out the unusually marked rounds to anyone else then or mentioning them to fellow Marines later. He did not recollect anyone else mentioning they saw them. The veteran provided the names of several potential corroborating witnesses, although he could not be sure any of them would have been aware of the VX-marked rounds.[221] We could not contact the corporal who helped unload the rounds or the unit NBC NCO.

We also interviewed the 3/12 headquarters battery commander who passed the rounds to the witness. He remembered participating in disarming the howitzers, which he estimated were 152mm caliber, on March 2, 1991. (They were 122mm—see below.) He believed he was the senior officer present at the time. He stated he did not see or hear about ammunition marked Gas-VX or any other evidence of offensive chemical warfare capability. These Marines’ objective was to render the howitzers combat-ineffective, which they did by smashing the firing locks, unloading the projectiles for later destruction, and unloading and burning the separate powder charges on the spot. He believed they unloaded about 30 projectiles from each howitzer. He did not recall these rounds’ configuration, but said they were rusty and his unit would not fire rounds in that condition. He stressed had he known of any indications of chemical rounds, the last thing he would have permitted was handling the rounds or moving the howitzers. He said he knew the proper procedure for dealing with the projectiles—leave them for the 11th Marines engineers to destroy later. He thought someone reported, possibly by radio, the ammunition’s location to the engineers. The captain also recalled the howitzer vehicles contained crude NBC protective masks in degraded condition but no other protective gear. The battery commander provided the photo in Figure 33 depicting the vehicles involved.[222] It shows two Soviet-made 2S1 122mm self-propelled howitzers. The photo also shows an armored ammunition vehicle designed to carry additional projectiles and charges.[223]

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Figure 33.  Captured self-propelled howitzers and ammunition vehicle

We interviewed another of the corporal’s referred witnesses, the 3/12 sergeant major, who recalls riding in a HMMWV with the battalion commanding officer through the area of the abandoned, self-propelled howitzers and agrees March 2nd sounded like the right date. He observed projectiles lying on the ground, some stacked, and estimated the total was about 20, most likely 122mm. He believed the rounds looked like the high-explosive type. He insisted he neither observed nor heard then or later that any of the unloaded ammunition had markings indicating chemical warfare rounds. He said such a discovery would have stopped everybody in their tracks, been reported widely throughout Marine units, and recorded in after-action reports. In his view, those in charge would not have permitted others to routinely disarm these howitzers if they knew one or more rounds might contain chemical warfare agent (CWA). He attended many debriefings and staff meetings after the cease fire. Discovery of such rounds—not something one would forget—never came up. This witness could not recall what happened to the captured howitzers, although he noted some equipment was shipped to home bases as war mementos.[224]

We talked with the 11th Marines’ engineer officer who did not recall hearing about discovering possible chemical warfare artillery ammunition. He said after the cease fire, the engineers hauled Iraq’s assorted abandoned equipment back to Manifah Bay on flatbed trucks but he did not specifically recall hauling self-propelled howitzers. He remembered seeing enemy ammunition stacked in various places, but his engineers did not retrieve or dispose of any of it. He believed US Army units had that responsibility.[225]

We asked the Marine 1st Combat Engineer Battalion’s former commanding officer whether he had heard someone had discovered a possible VX round and about procedures for dealing with enemy ammunition after the cease fire. This witness said he accompanied Task Force Ripper during the ground campaign as its only EOD specialist. He never heard of the incident. After he arrived in the Kuwait City area, he recalled he and his sergeant major reconnoitered the general area around the city looking for evidence of chemical warfare weapons left behind or other munitions problems. He recalls all the munitions they found were conventional explosives. He did not believe the report of a VX-marked round was factual and it must have been something else. For example, he pointed out chemical warfare munitions normally are deployed for large volumes of fire, not one or a few rounds at a time. He also stated he would have been surprised at English markings. He noted every time they deployed, all Marines were briefed on handling unusual munitions properly, including not touching them, marking or noting their location, and reporting the incident so EOD specialists could deal with the situation. He thought if EOD elements had been notified of possible chemical warfare rounds, they would have rapidly responded and the incident would have been briefed widely; he recalled no such briefings. Also, he suggested every reporter in the world would have photographed it. This witness did not believe the rounds really contained VX.[226]

c. Analysis

After the Gulf War, Iraq admitted to United Nations inspectors it had produced 3.9 metric tons of the nerve agent VX. The inspectors detected and confirmed they found degradation products of that agent on several Scud-type ballistic missile warhead remnants that Iraq unilaterally destroyed. However the inspectors uncovered no evidence VX had been loaded into cannon artillery rounds. Post-war inspections showed Iraq had CWA artillery projectiles, but only containing blister agent, and only for 155mm weapons.[227]

According to several sources, Marines demilitarized and unloaded ammunition from much abandoned or destroyed enemy equipment after the cease fire. No other reports of chemical warfare agent artillery rounds came to light. We find it unlikely only one self-propelled howitzer would carry only a few such rounds.

Only the Marine whose report initiated this incident investigation claims to have seen an artillery projectile marked Gas-VX. No other witness present in the area at the time of this reported discovery said they saw such rounds or knew about them.

We could not identify the unit or servicemembers who eventually may have disposed of the ammunition the howitzer carried and could not determine the disposition of that ammunition. We believe it logical, however, when technical experts disposed of this ammunition they probably would have noticed any English VX labeling. Had they noted such munitions, they would have reported it widely. We have found no such reports.

After the war, United Nations inspectors determined Iraq only used chemical warfare (CW)-specific markings on its Al Hussein (Scud) missile and (some) 155mm artillery chemical warheads. Iraq claimed it did not use a uniform chemical munitions marking system and instead kept track of CW weapons by sending specialists to accompany the munitions until used. The inspectors determined some 155mm mustard-filled artillery shells were painted gray with the word Gaz in Arabic and a lot number spray-painted in yellow. The inspectors discovered no 122mm chemical warfare artillery shells.[228]

d. Assessment

We assess it unlikely that what a witness discovered in Kuwait after the war were VX-filled rounds for 122mm self-propelled howitzers. This assessment rests heavily on lack of evidence Iraq had VX artillery rounds (or any kind of 122mm chemical warfare artillery shells) in its inventory and that no one else reported seeing such ammunition, normally deployed in quantity for heavy shelling. If the initial witness who reported VX rounds told no one of them at the time, it was not surprising no immediate, definitive investigation took place. We can offer no alternative hypothesis to explain what this articulate, emphatic initial witness said he saw. We recognize if we had been able to locate and interview other witnesses, our assessment might have been different.

C. Analysis of Related Issues

In investigating the 11th Marines’ alerts and incidents, we studied other relevant factors: 1) the 11th Marines’ chemical detection equipment accuracy in a polluted environment, 2) medical evidence, and 3) any special 11th Marines operational characteristics that could have affected chemical warfare incident response.

1. Chemical Warfare Agent Detection Capability

One or more chemical detection devices initiated or contributed to some of the incidents the 11th Marines recorded. If interferents caused these devices to give false positive indications, they were responsible for false alarms and unnecessary increases in protective posture. On the other hand, if these devices were used in inappropriate circumstances, Marines may have trusted them to warn of chemical warfare agents that these devices were too insensitive to detect. We briefly review the Marines’ key chemical detection equipment below. The glossary at Tab A further describes this equipment.

a. Fox NBC Reconnaissance Vehicle

Many Marines gave high marks to the Fox NBC reconnaissance vehicle with onboard MM-1 mobile mass spectrometer.[229] The Fox was primarily designed to detect, identify, and mark areas of persistent liquid chemical warfare agent ground contamination. During the Gulf War, Marines used the system as a primary detection device, sniffing air while on-the-move, monitoring for potential chemical warfare agent vapors. Marines also used the Fox to verify or refute other devices’ positive indications of chemical agent presence. Although the MM-1 had a limited capability to detect agents in the air, the Fox was not optimized for this mission, nor was its detection capability in this method of operation (the Air/Hi method) as good as that of other chemical warfare agent detectors.[230]

In the operating mode the Fox crews used for nerve agent vapor detection in ambient air (the Air/Hi method), the MM-1 was 12,400 times less sensitive than the M256 kit and 310 to 620 times less sensitive than the M8A1 alarm’s M43 vapor detector and the CAM. Table 3 illustrates this point by showing the sensitivity of various detectors to G-series nerve agents in vapor form.

Table 3. Vapor chemical agent detector characteristics[231]



(vapor concentration)

Response Time

M256A1 Kit G-series 0.005 mg/m3 15 min
M43A1 Vapor detector
(M8A1 system)
G-series 0.1-0.2 mg/m3 <=2 min
Chemical Agent Monitor GB [sarin] <= 0.1 mg/m3 <=1 min
Mobile mass spectrometer GB [sarin] 62 mg/m3 <=45 sec

A 1st Marine Division NBC officer pointed out that the Gulf War Fox system might not have been able to alarm using the Air/Hi method until agent concentrations were well above the threshold where one would expect prompt symptoms.[232] A pre-war report made this point more concisely, "The MM-1 does not detect chemical warfare agent vapor at the danger level to humans."[233] It is at least probable those trusting the Fox’s no-threat indications for vapor in ambient air did not fully understand the equipment’s capabilities and limitations.

b. M256 Chemical Agent Detection Kit

In the presence of some petroleum and combustion products, the M256 kit could generate false positives, particularly for blister agents.[234] As noted in the incident summaries, the 11th Marines used M256 kits extensively to test for chemical warfare agent (CWA). Marines in command and operations positions frequently bemoaned the false alarm rate from interferents.[235] However, most trained NBC specialists expressed overall confidence in this kit, if used properly.[236] The 1/11’s Battery A reportedly stopped using the M256 after a Fox crew told them only the Fox was reliable in oil smoke.[237] As noted above, this was not true using the Fox’s Air/Hi sampling method. Consequently, had there been CWA on the battlefield, that unit and any others following similar advice could have put themselves at increased risk.

According to the 11th Marine Regiment’s NBC officer, as the ground campaign neared, some of the 11th Marines’ M256 kits approached or exceeded their shelf life expiration dates. He could not recall what portion of their inventory was affected but had the impression it was low. He noted for each lot number involved, he requested and received an extension of the shelf life. He was less concerned about shelf life than about having enough kits available going into the ground campaign. He believed even expired kits were better than nothing and would have taken additional expired kits if he could have obtained them.[238] One platoon commander in the 1/12 told us he always ran at least six M256 tests in response to an NBC alert because he repeatedly had gotten false positive readings for nerve agent (no color change), possibly because of age.[239]

A US Army technical report notes an over-age M256 kit with inactive or too little enzyme produces a false positive for nerve agent. The kit requires active enzymes to produce a negative or no nerve agent indication by turning a paper patch from white to blue. Nerve agent, as does age, inactivates the enzymes, and the color change does not occur, thus giving a positive reading.[240] Kits exceeding their original expiration dates may have caused some positive M256 nerve agent tests in the Gulf War. False positives generally are better than the reverse—false negatives. False positives (indications of CWA presence when there is no agent present) err on the side of safety, while false negatives (indications of no CWA presence when there is agent present) allow possible toxic exposure.

As noted in our investigation of Incidents L, M, and N, monitor/survey teams in at least one 11th Marines battery may have used the M256 erroneously in putting test spots directly on surfaces subjected to heavy raw petroleum and smoke contamination. Logic suggests this situation would produce false positives. Marine instruction may not have adequately covered non-standard actions that could produce false indications and why.

c. Chemical Agent Monitor (CAM)

The 11th Marines also extensively used the then-new Chemical Agent Monitor (CAM) in their operational area. Most witnesses commented positively about it, although some noted it could give false alarms in an environment with interferents (the device could show a fairly high concentration of nerve agent when sniffing a Cup-o-Noodles ).[241] Marines frequently used this device to monitor ambient air. However, the CAM was designed as a point source detector for contamination at close range on equipment and people.[242] From available information, it appears the CAM complemented other continuous and periodic monitoring.

d. Remote Sensing Chemical Agent Alarm (RSCAAL)

The RSCAAL was an experimental device designed to detect CWA by passively sampling infrared spectra of clouds up to several kilometers away. Before the ground campaign, the 11th Marines sent the RSCAAL along on two artillery raids. During one, the device repeatedly alarmed. In the middle of the night, it was too dark to observe or identify what the detector might have sensed so far from the unit’s location. The RSCAAL operator on this raid did not recall for what type of agent the device alarmed.[243] There were no reports the RSCAAL alarmed on the other raid.

During the ground war, the 1st Marine Division’s RSCAAL was deployed with Battery S, 5/11. Battery S stopped using the device before the ground campaign ended because short-range detectors like the CAM and M256 kits did not confirm the RSCAAL alarms. Some Marines told us chemical interferents or a low power supply could cause the device to alarm falsely.[244] Although the Marines’ training on the device was marginal,[245] we found no evidence the regiment’s Marines used the RSCAAL inappropriately or the system contributed to a false sense of security. It did, however, trigger two of the 11th Marines’ recorded alerts subsequently considered false alarms.

We asked a Marine Corps Combat Development Command expert involved in testing and fielding Marine Corps NBC equipment to comment on how Marines viewed the RSCAAL at the time of the Gulf War. He indicated he was the one responsible for fielding the RSCAAL with Marine units for the war and had a very favorable view of the equipment. He noted the US Army and Marine Corps jointly tested the equipment in a laboratory environment before the war and confirmed it could detect CWA. He said they also tested the equipment using some interferents and determined the RSCAAL could discriminate these test interferents from real chemical agents. The expert was unaware and surprised the 1st Marine Division sidelined its prototype device before the ground campaign ended because of alleged false alarms. He indicated his organization had received very positive feedback on the device after Operation Desert Storm.[246]

e. M8A1 Automatic Chemical Agent Alarm System

As noted in Table 3 above, the M8A1 system’s vapor detector is highly sensitive to nerve agent vapor. However, it cannot detect blister or blood agents. It also is sensitive to a wide variety of interferents, including smoke, engine exhaust, burning fuel, and even aftershave.[247] Before the ground campaign began, M8A1s generated false alarms at a rate that caused many Marine units, for which the M8A1 was not standard equipment, to leave them behind or turn them off for the attack into Kuwait.[248] The M8A1, therefore, contributed little to the Marines’ chemical warning capability—particularly the capability to detect nerve agent in the air.

f. Understanding of Chemical Warfare Agent Detection Equipment Limitations

In an interview, the 11th Marines’ commanding officer pointed out that when the ground campaign began, his unit did not understand the issued chemical agent detectors’ limitations. In particular, he noted they did not know oil well fires at times could produce false positives in all the detectors.[249] As previously noted, the Fox reconnaissance vehicles, CAMs, and RSCAALs were introduced very late in the ground war preparations. Marine operators had only a limited opportunity to receive training on and become familiar with the relative strengths and weaknesses of these systems.

g. Assessment

The 11th Marines’ various detection devices’ sensitivity to battlefield interferents, particularly pollution from burning oil wells, probably caused a significant number of false alarms and unnecessary transitions to MOPP Level 4. Operators did not understand some of the limitations and responses to interferents in a highly polluted environment. Positive indications by more sensitive equipment, considered false alarms, sometimes led to increasing reliance on equipment like the Fox and CAM—which were not optimized to detect airborne agent concentrations. Because the Marine Corps fielded the Fox, CAM, and RSCAAL rapidly, just in time to be available for combat, Marines using these devices did not have sufficient training to fully grasp the equipment’s respective capabilities and limitations.

2. What Did Medical Records Show?

The only contemporaneous medical document we discovered was a March 11, 1991, memorandum from the 11th Marines regimental surgeon to the regiment’s commanding officer. It summarized the organization and implementation of medical treatment for the command—and included this statement: "No serious injuries or mortalities were received and no medical evacuations called."[250] We believe if the 11th Marines had operated in the presence of CWA, medical reporting would have documented at least a few CWA casualties.

In a 1998 interview, the regimental surgeon said he and a small team were located at the 11th Marines’ logistics base where they would receive any chemical casualties requiring decontamination, as the medical teams with the forward battalions could not stop to treat these casualties. The surgeon knew of no chemical casualties or anyone in the 11th Marines claiming exposure to CWA. He said he believed he would have received notification if any forward teams, each with a doctor and about 12 corpsmen, had treated chemical casualties.[251]

We also interviewed the chief Navy corpsman and one other medical corpsman assigned to the 11th Marines. They recalled a few instances in which Marines reported shortness of breath, dizziness, or eye irritation. They reported they observed these Marines and ruled out CWA exposure.[252]

We requested the 11th Marines’ current regimental surgeon’s office to review any existing records from the Gulf War period for reports of chemical warfare casualties. That office replied by telephone that it no longer retained these records.[253]

A military physician assigned to the Office of the Special Assistant reviewed the diagnoses of those who had served with the 11th Marines during the war and whom the Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program had medically assessed (60 Marines total, not including 36 who left the program early and for whom no diagnosis was recorded). In this physician’s opinion, none of these diagnoses are known to be associated with CWA exposure effects.

3. Was Something Unusual About the 11th Marines?

If the CIA and UNSCOM correctly concluded Iraq neither deployed forward nor employed CWA during the Gulf War, why did the 11th Marines initiate and record as many NBC incidents as they did? Do other explanations account for the numerous incidents even if CWA was not present? A summary of the evidence follows.

a. Artillery Pattern of Maneuver

Several witnesses pointed out that artillery units operate and maneuver differently than infantry units in ways that probably affected chemical warfare alerts and reactions. They noted artillery elements leapfrogged each other during movement to provide continuous fire support to the maneuver task forces. Consequently, they remained in a fixed position longer than did infantry units and had the opportunity to observe more.[254]

The 11th Marines’ commanding officer noted that having to remain stationary meant their batteries could not reposition if there was a chemical attack. In addition, he believed that in temporary fixed positions artillery units could upgrade protective posture more easily and could afford to don full protective gear in response to alerts more than could infantry units. Therefore, he said, they were inclined to upgrade the MOPP level rather than take a chance.[255]

b. Communications and Situation Awareness

The 11th Marines’ commanding officer was not surprised the unit recorded several incidents. He noted that because the 11th Marines provided artillery fire support across the entire 1st Marine Division, the regiment monitored all the division’s radio networks. Whenever anybody reported gas, they responded. He recalled senior commanders liked to come to the artillery regiment because there they could find out what the whole division was doing rather than just one unit.[256] Other Marines agreed. According to these witnesses, it was artillery units’ nature to have communications networks and liaison people over a wide area. Artillery units would pick up on a suspected CWA attack and report it on the artillery networks. Alerts tended to spread like wildfire across unit boundaries and throughout artillery formations.[257] Although most units tended to react anyway, some units may have been too distant from the source of these alerts being communicated across boundaries for increased protective posture to be rational, even if the threat had been real.

Several witnesses believed those troops passing chemical alerts, not just the 11th Marines but presumably from other units as well, did not demonstrate proper discipline. An NBC officer noted that while he had instructed his artillery battalion on proper NBC reporting procedures, the multitude of reports sometimes involved people panicking and reporting gas. He thought if the units had properly followed the reporting procedures, they could have avoided many instances of troops remaining in MOPP Level 4 for long periods.[258] One commanding officer recalled if anybody suspected CWA was present, he got on the network and the alert spread like an uncontrollable fire.[259] Another officer said their battalion NBC NCO became livid about the alerts, believing the positive readings were false. On one occasion, he recalled the NCO went outside without his mask during an alert to underscore his point.[260] Noting alerts often did not contain information on the initiating unit or location, another witness offered the opinion that proper procedure was not used in at least one instance he remembered.[261] An NBC NCO outside the 11th Marines thought the regiment was very undisciplined in using the radios. He pointed out that because of their Fire Support Coordination Center, their messages went all over the place. They reported other units’ alerts, as well as their own. This witness stated discipline was so lax he often could not tell who had originated an NBC-1 report.[262] In the words of an 11th Marines fire direction controlman, alerts were "kind of like a chain reaction, word spread, people ran around."[263]

The 11th Marines NBC officer noted alerts were to be sent up the chain of command, down, and laterally. He believed there was no practical alternative to radioing alerts. He noted the problem was that one unit would initiate an alert, which would circle the network. Consequently, it often appeared more than one incident had occurred, when that was not the case. He recognized spurious alerts caused units to go to MOPP Level 4, but could not figure out an alternate solution. He noted most of those initiating alerts did not file a formal NBC-1 report even though they should have, which he attributed partly to the pressure of battle and fatigue[264] (an NBC-1 report contains entries for time, location, unit, nature of the threat, etc. The glossary in Tab A describes the NBC reporting system.) Another observer noted the 11th Marines had five battalions for the ground campaign but only one NBC officer at the regiment. This witness thought that, despite having such a large area of responsibility, the 11th Marines NBC officer did a "hell of a job."[265]

c. Training and Indoctrination

We analyzed whether the 11th Marines trained or indoctrinated their members differently than other 1st Marine Division units. Such differences might help explain the number of incidents. In pursuing this line of questioning, we did not intend to make value judgments about what was correct—only what might have been different.

Several witnesses suggested 11th Marines elements might have been more cautious about chemical threats than other units. An NBC officer with the 1st Marine Division pointed to the influence of the 11th Marines NBC officer. He described this Marine as careful and inclined to play it safe by reporting possible chemical weapons’ presence.[266]

The 11th Marine Regiment received this training during Operation Desert Shield: testing and reporting chemical incidents, handling casualties, unmasking procedures, and decontaminating equipment.[267]

As the regiment’s commanding officer pointed out, the 11th Marines had only three subordinate battalions for most of Operation Desert Shield. Shortly before the ground campaign began, the 3/12 from Okinawa arrived and was integrated. He recalled Battery A, 1/11, and two reserve batteries (Batteries H and I, 14th Marines) also joined the regiment. To optimize experience across the regiment, the commanding officer noted he reassigned some batteries among battalions. He said the late-arriving units did not have the full benefit of in-theater training. This could have affected reactions to alert situations.[268]

One battalion in particular, the 1/11, reported a significant number of chemical warfare incidents after the ground campaign began. One NBC officer indicated the 1/11 was quite diligent in its NBC procedures and was "quick to go to MOPP-4."[269] The 1/11 commanding officer noted his battalion’s Battery A had a very active NBC monitoring team, whose people were very enthusiastic about what they were doing. However, at the time he did not sense that the 1/11 was getting more positive indications than anybody else. "So, I didn’t have a sense...we were at the epicenter of all these incidents. It seemed to me that there were other units reporting things that we were responding to."[270] Asked if he thought the 1/11 NBC teams were more aggressive than others, a 1/11 NBC officer said he did not know, but basically thought everybody was aggressive.[271]

Without an extensive cross-unit survey, it is difficult to judge objectively whether the 11th Marines’ NBC training differed from other units. Nevertheless, we asked some witnesses to reflect on this issue. One 1/12 NBC NCO recalled that for five months they did nothing but train in NBC. He said, "We did so much training, preparing to fight in an NBC environment that, yeah, maybe we were a little anxious," and a fire direction control specialist with the 5/11 thought the NBC defense training was probably overkill.[272] The 3/12 CO suggested as a result of their training, the Marines may have been over-prepared for an NBC environment. He said any lance corporal who smelled something or saw unusual smoke could get on the radio and cause the Marines to go to MOPP Level 4. Reviewing a personal journal, another battery commander quoted a January 17, 1991 entry, where he and others laughed because the sonic boom of an overflying aircraft caused some Marines to dive into protective holes. He said some Marines even thought Saudi cooking aromas indicated chemical warfare agent presence.[273] The 11th Marines NBC officer attributed the number of his unit’s incidents to thorough training and emphasized he personally instructed every battery on NBC procedures.[274]

d. Assessment

It appears from the available evidence that systemic factors contributed to the number of 11th Marines incidents. In some cases, these factors appeared to affect certain subordinate elements of the regiment more than others.

Artillery units’ distinctive maneuvering patterns probably gave those Marines more opportunity to observe their surroundings, do chemical detection tests, and report suspicious activity. Unable to relocate freely, artillery batteries were more motivated to respond to chemical alerts and could do so more easily than infantry units.

From these observations emerges a consensus that the extensive artillery coordination networks contributed to the spread of alerts far and wide—even to units not downwind. This communications capability—combined with questionable radio discipline—probably caused some confusion and generated over-reaction.

During Operation Desert Shield, 13 out of the 11th Marines’ eventual 16 firing batteries trained extensively in NBC defense. Three of the regiment’s batteries arrived shortly before the ground campaign. The reduced in-theater NBC training may have caused somewhat different responses to the chemical warfare threat.

Based on collected data, it appears the 11th Marines NBC officer was comparatively cautious in approach and probably passed this approach on to the subordinate units during training. Between safety and the negative impact of going to MOPP Level 4, the 11th Marines generally favored safety—partly perhaps because of its deployment pattern. Some battalions—particularly the 5/11 and the 3/12—seemed to emphasize the philosophy of avoiding operational degradation and instituted restraining procedures on alert responses. The perception of spurious alerts can affect safety. One Marine referred to a "yelling wolf type syndrome."[275]

We recognize our observations have the advantage of hindsight. Iraq had chemical weapons and had used them in the past. Iraq’s forces might have considered artillery units as priority targets. During part of the fighting, Marine units operated with restricted visibility from oil well fires and had to feel their way forward against an enemy they might not see. There was incoming fire. Stress was a natural reaction. As the 11th Marines CO noted, "It was not an academic exercise."[276] It was, however, a successful one.

As a final observation, we conclude that our extensive research on 11th Marines chemical warfare incidents produced no clear evidence to refute United Nations inspectors’ and others’ beliefs that Iraq chose not to move chemical warfare munitions into Kuwait before or during the war.

This narrative concludes that 11th Marines elements used the NBC indications and information they received to try to protect their forces from CWA exposure while focusing on their critical mission of supporting infantry units. They tried to do the right thing. With the benefit of hindsight, we can extract lessons learned from their experience that we hope will help prepare Marine and other forces for future operations in the face of NBC threats.

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