Veterans Groups Berate U.S. Biochemical Force Protection
Dave Eberhart,
Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2002
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series.
Part one: Are We Ready for War?
"Our protective gear – gas masks and chemical suits – were defective
during Gulf War round one, and it is the same this time around,” Denise
Nichols, vice chairman of the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans
Coalition, tells
Nichols adds: "The GAO [Government Accounting Office] did a study on
ours [chemical suits], and just last week testified to the Government Reform
Committee. It’s the same story again!
"Pray for our troops because that is more protective that their force
protective gear.”
In that hearing, members of the House committee lamented over testimony
about the possibility that troops heading for battle in Iraq may be issued
flawed chemical suits manufactured by a discredited contractor. Defense
officials could not say for sure if the Department of Defense supply system
had been purged of the defective suits, but believed the unaccounted-for
1989 vintage suits were used for training and then discarded.
However, Joseph Schmitz, the inspector general for the DoD, said that his
team just months ago "continued to identify units that have not segregated
those defective over-garments from their inventories.”

Unsafe From Any Lot

Meanwhile, some veterans advocates warn that, whether issued from a
defective lot or not, the suits will not stand up to sustained battlefield
conditions in Iraq.
"Although DOD is fielding new NBC equipment, troops currently deploying
are leaving with the same equipment troops deployed into Iraq 12 years ago,”
says Kirt P. Love, director of the Desert Storm Battle Registry and a Gulf
War veteran.
"We headed to war with the same faulty M8 alarms that set off 14,000 false
alarms 12 years ago, while detecting [bio-chemical agents] at thousands-of-
times lethal dose – too late to do any good,” Love warns.
"The masks do not have .5 sub-micron filtration needed for small pox or
anthrax, and these mask are only good for sarin – and not cyclosarin,
mustard, ammonia-based products, or solvent-based products that dissolve
the rubber mask. These mask are only good for 20 to 30 minutes in a
contaminated environment before the cartridges are overwhelmed."
Love also advises, "Carbon-based porous overgarments [such as those
used by our troops now] provide temporary resistance, but once the suit
is removed from its protective plastic, it’s only good for 24 hours, regardless
of environment.”
He finds this shortcoming inconsistent with what many experts forecast as
protracted urban combat, perhaps even becoming hand-to-hand.

Repeating the Mistakes of Gulf War I

Nichols and Love are just part of a growing army of veterans’ advocates
warning that some health-hazarding mistakes of the 1991 Gulf War seem
about to be repeated.
Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resources
Center, is not at all happy with the state of affairs, as the U.S. stands poised
to once again invade the toxic land of Iraq. Among other things, he wants
speedy implementation of the Force Health Protection Law.
This law requires pre-deployment, during deployment and post-deployment
screening of soldiers – including serum collection and physical inspection
by a clinician.
Robinson says that scrupulous implementation of the public law is imperative
to prevent U.S. troops from having to repeat the Gulf War I exercise of having
to fight their own government for years to get compensation for service-
connected injury and illness:
"So far, science has taken 11 years to understand the exposures that veterans
of the last Gulf War faced. Science has absolutely shown that the illnesses
GWS veterans face are not as a result of the stressors of war, but as a result
of exposures, unapproved vaccines, unapproved pills and a myriad of other
things that have not yet been researched.”
Love agrees with Robinson and professes dissatisfaction with what he learned
during a recent meeting with the Pentagon’s Deployment Health Support Directorate:
"Special Forces would deploy with a…database system to track health record
information of soldiers on classified missions. But collecting other medical
records of troops in Iraq was not high priority,” Love says.

Insidious Lesson

Meanwhile, all the veterans advocates seem to be concerned about
what they see as an insidious lesson to be drawn from fighting Saddam
the first time.
As for 1991’s Desert Storm operation, there remains to this day no hard
evidence that the mad dictator fired any biochemical agents at allied forces.
Yet the battlefield was still so toxic as to create frightening statistics about
the health consequences suffered by the U.S. troops that fought there.
The advocates point to the latest Department of Veterans Affairs report on
Gulf War I personnel, including medical illnesses and deaths in the 11
years since Operation Desert Storm.
For instance, the Gulf War’s totals of 148 combat deaths, 145 non-combat
fatalities and 213 wounded out of the 537,000 U.S. personnel who served
in the Persian Gulf region belies what has over the ensuing years evolved
into a health crisis for Gulf War vets.
The startling reality is that 36 percent (about 206,861) have filed medical
claims with the VA for illnesses stemming from their Desert Storm service.
(Note: a figure less than the 206,861 have to date been granted service-
connected disability.)
In historical context, the Korean conflict, which lasted years rather than
days, resulted in over 33,000 Americans killed in combat, and some
10,000 dying as a result of wounds, disease and accidents. The combat
wounded total was about 104,000.
Despite that vast disparity in numbers between the two American wars,
of the 2.3 million American veterans now receiving compensation, 172,600
are Korean War-era veterans, a number only 13,000 more than the Gulf
War veterans.
What’s more, according to the VA report, a surprising 8,013 Gulf War I
veterans who served in the conflict have already died.
Further attesting to the toxic nature of the last Gulf War’s battlefields, the
VA report discloses that a large number of service personnel who were
deployed into the Persian Gulf region after the war ended on Feb. 28,
1991, have also become ill.
Nichols concluded recently in a column, "As we watch yet another group
of warriors prepare once more for war in the Gulf region, we know that
existing force protection, medical care and reporting accountability
deficiencies have not been resolved.”

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