On March 2, 1991, US Army medical personnel diagnosed Private First Class David A. Fisher as having been exposed to liquid mustard chemical warfare agent while exploring enemy bunkers along the Kuwait-Iraq border. He was medically evacuated from the Kuwait theater of operations and awarded a Purple Heart for his injuries.

Private First Class Fisher began developing blisters on his upper left arm roughly eight hours after a search-and-destroy mission in enemy bunkers on March 1, 1991. Medics and physician’s assistants in his unit examined Private First Class Fisher’s injury. Medical personnel evaluated, diagnosed, and treated his blisters as a chemical warfare injury. The doctors who diagnosed his injury as blister agent exposure were trained to identify chemical warfare agent casualties. Furthermore, one of them was a leading expert in this field.

Private First Class Fisher provided a urine sample to the doctors who diagnosed his injury as an exposure to liquid mustard chemical warfare agent. One of the doctors took this urine sample to the United States for analysis at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense. The urinalysis results were negative for thiodiglycol, a mustard agent breakdown product usually found in the urine of persons exposed to mustard agent.

Two Fox Nuclear, Biological, Chemical reconnaissance vehicles attempted to locate the bunker in which Private First Class Fisher might have been exposed. Private First Class Fisher did not accompany these vehicles to the bunker complex, and it is not known if the crews located the correct bunker. One Fox crew, believing they had found the bunker, tested for chemical warfare agent and reported they detected a mustard agent, but we have no physical evidence to corroborate this report. The accompanying Fox also tested for chemical warfare agent but yielded negative results.

Two Fox vehicle crews tested Private First Class Fisher’s coveralls and body armor (more commonly called a flak jacket) with MM-1 mobile mass spectrometers to determine if a chemical warfare agent was present. While three separate tests (one test of Private First Class Fisher’s coveralls and two of his flak jacket) indicated a possible presence of a mustard agent, only one of the flak jacket tests provided high confidence for mustard presence.

Private First Class Fisher’s flak jacket and pieces of cloth from his coveralls were sent to the US Army Chemical Research, Development, and Engineering Center for laboratory analysis. The analysis showed no evidence of chemical warfare agent or chemical warfare agent degradation byproducts.

It is difficult to conclude whether Private First Class Fisher was exposed to chemical warfare agent residue while searching bunkers along the Iraq-Kuwait border on March 1, 1991. Among the strongest evidence supporting the conclusion he was exposed to a chemical warfare agent are statements from the well-trained medical personnel who diagnosed and treated his injury as mustard exposure. The medical personnel who examined Private First Class Fisher believed his blisters resulted from chemical warfare agent exposure. However, even the doctor who was a leading expert in the field of chemical warfare agent casualties stated that something other than mustard agent could have caused the blisters. But he further stated that all of the information at the time of the incident led him to a clinical diagnosis of mustard exposure.

The urinalysis failed to detect the mustard breakdown product, thiodiglycol. This result was inconsistent with the diagnosis, but, in the leading medical expert’s opinion, not unexpected because of the low level of exposure.

The nuclear, biological, chemical soldiers who tested Private First Class Fisher’s coveralls and flak jacket with the Fox MM-1 remembered detecting sulfur mustard and sesqui-mustard. However, the surviving physical evidence does not agree with their recollections; in fact, sesqui-mustard was not in Iraq’s chemical warfare agent inventory. During our previous investigation of this incident in 1997, we believed one operator had obtained a spectrum providing a high degree of confidence of mustard’s presence on the flak jacket. We had based this conclusion on a videotape of a spectrum showing the MM-1 spectrometer analysis of a spot on the flak jacket that indicated sulfur mustard presence. However, a review of the data on the operator’s screen cast doubt on the presence of mustard agent—the sample was missing critical ions of mustard. Also, the subsequent laboratory testing of the coverall cloth samples and the flak jacket at the US Army Chemical Research, Development, and Engineering Center showed no evidence of chemical warfare agent or chemical warfare agent degradation byproducts.

Private First Class Fisher’s reported exposure occurred 100 miles from Iraq’s nearest chemical warfare agent storage facility, according to the Central Intelligence Agency and United Nations Special Commission. The Central Intelligence Agency and United Nations Special Commission have reported no evidence Iraq moved any chemical warfare agents south of Khamisiyah. Consequently, we do not know where the mustard would have come from to cause this reported exposure.

In summary, the information about this incident is conflicting. The medical diagnosis by trained doctors and the videotape of an apparent spectrum lead to the conclusion an exposure occurred. On the other hand, the analysis of the data extracted from the videotaped Fox spectrum showed critical ions were missing from the spectrum. In addition, other causes of blisters exist, we have no evidence of chemical weapons in that area of the Kuwait theater of operations, and laboratory testing in the United States failed to identify any chemical warfare agent on the flak jacket or coveralls material. Therefore, because of the conflicting evidence, we have reassessed this chemical warfare agent exposure incident as indeterminate.

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