Sun, Nov 09, 2014 - Page 5 News List

Pentagon reveals greater exposure to chemical arms

NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

More than 600 US service members since 2003 have reported to military medical staff members that they believe they were exposed to chemical warfare agents in Iraq, but the Pentagon failed to recognize the scope of the reported cases or offer adequate tracking and treatment to those who may have been injured, defense officials say.

The Pentagon’s disclosure abruptly changed the scale and potential costs of US encounters with abandoned chemical weapons during the occupation of Iraq, episodes the military had for more than a decade kept from view.

This previously untold chapter of the occupation became public after an investigation by the New York Times revealed last month that although troops did not find an active weapons of mass destruction program, they did encounter degraded chemical weapons from the 1980s that had been hidden in caches or used in makeshift bombs.

The Times initially disclosed 17 cases of US service members who were injured by sarin or a sulfur mustard agent. And since the report was published last month, more service members have come forward, pushing the number who were exposed to chemical agents to more than 25. However, an internal review of Pentagon records ordered by US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has uncovered that hundreds of troops told the military they believe they were exposed, officials said.

The new and larger tally of potential cases suggests that there were more encounters with chemical weapons than the US had acknowledged and that other people — including foreign soldiers, private contractors and Iraqi troops and civilians — may also have been at risk.

Having not acted for years on that data, the Pentagon says it will now expand outreach to veterans. One first step, officials said, includes a toll-free national telephone hotline for service members and veterans to report potential exposures and seek medical evaluation or care.

Phillip Carter, who leads veterans’ programs at the Center for a New American Security, called the Pentagon’s failure to organize and follow up on the information “a stunning oversight.”

Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the military must restore trust by sharing information.

“We need total transparency and absolute candor,” Rieckhoff said, and cited the military’s poor record in releasing information about its use in Vietnam of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant linked to an array of health problems, and in sharing data about troops’ presumed chemical exposures and other medical and environmental risks during and soon after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

Military officers said the previously unacknowledged data was discovered when, at Hagel’s prodding, the Army’s Public Health Command examined its collection of standardized medical-history surveys, known as post-deployment health assessments, which troops filled out as they completed combat tours.

The assessments included the following question: “Do you think you were exposed to any chemical, biological and radiological warfare agents during this deployment?” For those who answered “Yes,” the forms provided a block for a brief narrative explanation.

Colonel Jerome Buller, a spokesman for the US Army Surgeon General, on Thursday said that the review showed that 629 people answered yes to that question and also filled in the block with information indicating chemical agent exposure.

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