US to check troops for chemical exposure in Iraq

WASHINGTON (TIP): The Pentagon will offer medical examinations and long-term health monitoring to service members and veterans who were exposed to chemical warfare agents in Iraq, the army and navy said in separate statements this week, as part of a review of how the military handled encounters with thousands of abandoned chemical munitions during the American occupation. The review was ordered by defense secretary Chuck Hagel in response to an investigation by The New York Times of how troops who were exposed to nerve and mustard agents were treated by the military’s medical and awards systems.

The report found that while the United States had gone to war looking for an active weapons of mass destruction program, troops instead quietly found and suffered from the remnants of the long abandoned arsenal built by Saddam Hussein with help from the West. Since that article was published on Oct. 15, detailing several instances of exposure that the military kept secret in some cases for nearly a decade, more veterans and active-duty service members have come forward with their own accounts of exposure and inadequate treatment. To date, neither the Pentagon nor any of the services have released a full list of chemical weapons recoveries and exposures. The investigation by The Times found that the military did not follow its own health care guidelines in the initial care of many patients, and did not establish a means for following their health over time, as the guidelines also required.

It also found that the services applied different standards for awarding Purple Hearts, a medal that recognizes wounds received in action, engendering bitterness and feelings of betrayal among troops and veterans who were exposed. In response, two senior Army doctors said in interviews this week that new medical examinations for troops and veterans who were exposed to chemical munitions would begin in early 2015. Maj. Gen. Gary Cheek, deputy commanding general for army operations, said the veterans’ accounts of poor medical care and follow-up were disturbing. “I am not going to try to excuse it,” he said. “The No. 1 thing for us is to make sure we are taking care of soldiers” and veterans, he said, and added that the military planned to work with the department of veterans affairs to ensure exposures were documented and treated if necessary.

But he defended the continued secret classification of chemical-weapons incidents, saying that the military did not want to provide information to insurgents that Iraq’s old chemical munitions “could be effective.” “These are some of the rationales for keeping this stuff within secret channels,” he said. Rear Adm. John Kirby, Mr. Hagel’s spokesman, suggested that position was now under review. “The secretary obviously remains committed to preserving operational security but also recognizes the value in making available as much information as possible to veterans preparing — or continuing to file — VA claims,” he said.

The new accounts increase to at least 25 the total number of American troops exposed to chemical agents from some of the thousands of aged and corroding munitions that the troops found in abandoned stockpiles or came across in roadside bombs made from those old munitions. The latest accounts mostly fit a pattern that is now familiar. They include two army bomb disposal technicians who picked up a mustard shell at a roadside bombing in 2004; two navy disposal technicians who handled mustard shells in separate incidents in 2006 and 2007; and members of an army infantry platoon who said they were denied decontamination and swift medical evaluation after inhaling mustard vapors in 2008, when soldiers were destroying a buried chemicalmunitions stockpile.

“It was a failure of leadership,” said Reid Wilbraham, a former sergeant and squad leader in B Company, First Battalion, 14th Regiment, who said that his platoon leader had pressed more senior officers to allow soldiers to be examined but was rebuffed for days. Wilbraham said that while the two soldiers with chemical burns had been evacuated to a military hospital and then to Germany, those with inhalation complaints were told to remain at their posts. “They told us to burn our uniforms and take showers,” Wilbraham said. The soldiers may have contaminated each other in the close quarters they shared, he said.

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