Chemical Warfare Agent Presence in Minefield Breaching Operations 'Unlikely'

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2000 (GulfLINK) - The Department of Defense released today an update to its case narrativereport, "U.S. Marine Corps Minefield Breaching," that examines possible chemical warfare agent exposures to Marine Corps units during minefield breaching operations in the Gulf War. For this updated narrative, investigators re-examined existing evidence, conducted additional research, consulted with subject matter experts, and interviewed additional witnesses. In addition, this update addresses veterans' comments as well as questions raised by the General Accounting Office.

The updated case narrative assessment - like its predecessor - is that the presence of chemical warfare agents in specific areas of the Iraqi minefields stretching across southern Kuwait is "unlikely."

Case narratives examine reports of incidents during the Gulf War that might have involved the presence of chemical warfare agents or chemical warfare agent exposures. They are part of DoD's efforts to inform the public about its investigations into the nature and possible causes for the illnesses experienced by some Gulf War veterans.

On the morning of Feb. 24, 1991, U.S. Marine Corps units began clearing (breaching) paths through Iraqi minefields to engage Iraqi ground forces in Kuwait. Accounts of these operations described possible detections of chemical warfare agents by XM93 Fox Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Reconnaissance vehicles. The first incident involved 1st Marine Division, Task Force Ripper, and the second involved the 2nd  Marine Division's 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.

In the 1st Marine Division incident, the Task Force Ripper Fox vehicle commander reported that his MM-1 mobile mass spectrometer might have detected traces of unidentified nerve agent vapor as his Fox crossed the minefield. However, there was insufficient evidence to confirm the presence of a chemical warfare agent. No chemical warfare agent alarms sounded, no samples were taken and, despite traveling through the minefield breaches unprotected from nerve agent vapor, no one reported any chemical warfare agent exposure effects. Fox experts consulted for this investigation noted that in the mode in which the mobile mass spectrometer was operating, chemical warfare agent exposure casualties and fatalities to unprotected, exposed Marines would have occurred before the mobile mass spectrometer could indicate the presence of nerve agent vapor.

"We evaluated a great deal of evidence in this case," said lead investigator Tim Gainor. "Consulting mass spectrometry and Fox experts further convinced us that the MM-1 did not detect chemical warfare agent vapors in the 1st Marine Division breaching lanes. Nerve agent vapors primarily cause eye and respiratory problems, particularly to those who are unprotected. There were no reports of injuries, which is inconsistent with what one would expect if nerve agents had been present. We also considered how the suspected nerve agent got there, and in this case, found no explanation. The breaching lanes were not under artillery attack, and based on what we know today, Iraq did not deploy chemical landmines. In this case then, a delivery means for chemical warfare agents was not present. Consequently, when considering the circumstances in this case, it seems unlikely that chemical warfare agents were present."

In the 2nd Marine Division incident, the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment Fox vehicle mobile mass spectrometer alerted the crew to the possible presence of three chemical warfare agents: sarin, lewisite and HQ mustard. The crew warned personnel in the area, who closed vehicle hatches, donned protective masks and gloves and continued the assault.

Due to the priorities of breaching operations, the Fox could not stop to take samples, perform M256 tests, or attempt to identify contaminated areas, but a Fox crewman attempted to analyze an air sample with the mobile mass spectrometer. Experts from separate agencies analyzed the data printed automatically to a hard-copy tape, and although they could not completely rule out the presence of chemical warfare agents, they concluded that these alerts were most likely false positives, caused by the high concentration of airborne hydrocarbons from oil well fires and vehicle exhaust.

Other incidents that occurred within the 2nd Marine Division area of operations were also cause for concern that chemical warfare agents might have been present. These include an unconfirmed detection of chemical warfare nerve agent vapor by a chemical agent monitor, and M9 chemical warfare agent detector paper indications of a possible liquid chemical warfare agent. There was also a report that another Fox vehicle confirmed the 2nd Marine Division Fox vehicle alert.

"It is easy to understand why some Marines believed that chemical warfare agents were on the battlefield," said Gainor. "The Fox alert, coupled with M9 and CAM indications later that evening, and reports of an injured Marine were convincing. However, when we looked at each of these events individually, and as part of the bigger picture, we found that they are less convincing. The CAM and M9 indications did not confirm the presence of agents; they only indicated the possibility. No other tests were completed to corroborate agent presence."

Investigators examined accounts of four possible chemical warfare agent exposure injuries. Witness testimony regarding the first possible injury was contradictory. Likely symptoms of chemical warfare agent exposure, such as respiratory and eye problems, were not present. A medical exam performed at the time of the incident determined there was no injury. A medical expert consulted for this investigation found that this Marine's symptoms were inconsistent with chemical warfare exposure. This expert also noted the absence of injuries to other nearby Marines. The second Marine reportedly injured sought out a medical corpsman, who felt that this Marine was not exposed to chemical warfare agents. A third Marine reported injured by chemical warfare agents told investigators that chemical warfare agents were not the cause. Investigators continue to search for information regarding a fourth possible injury, but evidence collected to date does not indicate chemical warfare agent exposure.

"Information provided by Fox and medical experts helped us a great deal," said Gainor. "The 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment Fox alerted to three agents in a short period of time. However, an MM-1 alert does not confirm the presence of chemical warfare agents. Other tests have to be performed, the results must be analyzed and other factors must be considered. In the 2nd Marine Division Fox incident, the MM-1 tapes were analyzed by experts, and these experts think that the MM-1 false-alarmed.

"Other factors [considered during the investigation] included examining the evidence related to the reported injuries, asking if Iraq had these agents, and if so, how did the agents get there? We don't think Iraq had two of the three agents to which the Fox alerted, and we could not identify a delivery means," Gainor said. "The reported injuries didn't pan out; nobody displayed symptoms consistent with chemical warfare agent exposure. The complete picture led us to an assessment of unlikely."

"It was important to update our 1997 narrative," said Bernard Rostker, the special assistant for Gulf War illnesses. "The reports of possible chemical warfare agent injuries that emerged during our investigation and other related information needed to be included in our assessment. Updating this narrative gave us the chance to examine additional information. It also gave us more insight into the events and served to strengthen our original findings. I hope all interested veterans will visit our Internet website, GulfLINK, ( www.gulflink.osd.mil ) and read the complete report."