Editor’s Note: In April 2015, The Washington Spectator published investigative reporter Barbara Koeppel’s account of a cover-up in which Defense Department (DOD) officials refused to admit that veterans of the 1991 Gulf War were exposed to sarin gas when they blew up Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons bunkers at Khamisiyah.
Koeppel reported that despite veterans’ personal accounts, and DOD and CIA documents, Pentagon officials did not admit until 1997 that troops “may” have been exposed.
Also they claimed they didn’t know who was exposed and that exposure levels were too low to cause illness.
Early this month, Ron Brown, a Gulf War veteran disabled by sarin exposure in 1991, and a source for Koeppel’s story, met with Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense Brad Carson.
Koeppel’s account follows. —L.D.
Brown—one of the 20,000 troops exposed to sarin at Khamisiyah—hoped Carson would help the veterans get disability benefits, since 70 percent of claims have been denied. Brown told Carson that the veterans have trouble proving their illnesses—such as brain cancer and neurological diseases—are linked to the exposures.
Brown received a follow-up letter from Carson on May 9.
Carson wrote: “The Department took exceptional efforts after Operation Desert Storm to find evidence of exposures … and we agree that Service members attempted to destroy chemical warfare munitions by demolition at Khamisiyah.”
“We didn’t ‘attempt’ to destroy them. We did,” Brown said, adding that in 1996 and 1997, a Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) and the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) verified the demolitions.
And the DOD testified it blew up 8.5 cubic metric tons of munitions that spewed out sarin at Khamisiyah’s Bunker 73 on March 4, 1991, and several hundred sarin-filled 122mm rockets on March 10 at nearby pits.
“How can he say may have been exposed?” Ron Brown asks. “The DOD knew!”
Carson repeats the line the DOD wrote to Desert Storm veterans in 2000: that investigations “to determine possible hazard areas created by the demolition,” identified service members “who may have been exposed to very low levels of chemical agents after the demolition” (italics added).
“How can he say may have been exposed?” Brown asks. “The DOD knew!”
Brown states that a DOD study listed the exact symptoms the troops reported after they were exposed, where they were located (for example, in the desert), if they were under the plume (the smoke from the demolitions), and what treatment they received.
Carson concludes the DOD “cannot confirm exposure, only the possibility of exposure.”
Brown says documents prove that 20,000 troops were within 15 kilometers of Khamisiyah—listing the names of the eight units—while about 80,000 more were within 50 kilometers.
“You don’t have to know the exact dose,” he says. “The PAC confirmed they were exposed. Today, the veterans who were closest are dying of brain cancer at two to three times the rate of those who were further away.”
Last, Carson writes that a DOD 2000 letter advised veterans that “if you had health concerns, which might be related to your Gulf War service, you were encouraged to enroll in the Department of Defense Clinical Evaluation Program, or the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Persian Gulf Registry. The VA’s Gulf Registry is still available.”
Brown says many took up the offer.
“When we enrolled in the DOD program, it asked about 15 minutes worth of questions. With the VA Registry, they gave us a 15-minute physical exam. They checked my heart and lungs, hit me on my knee, and that was it.”
Morgan Plummer, Carson’s top advisor, told me that for those no longer in the military, “the VA sets the policy about their benefits. The principal responsibility of DOD is to ensure the VA has the information it needs to make its policy decisions, based on the in-service medical records.”
I told Plummer that the medical records of the veterans who were exposed to sarin have disappeared.
Morgan’s reply: “I can’t speak to that.”
However, Brown is still hopeful.
He says VA Secretary Robert McDonald launched a study a couple months ago to determine if veterans brain cancer should be considered “presumptive” in applications for disability claims, with results expected by the end of May.
“If the VA changes its policy and makes it presumptive, this is crucial. It means the veterans with brain cancer and the families of those who’ve died can file disability claims and won’t need to show the link to the sarin exposure that appeared in their lost records,” Brown says.
Barbara Koeppel is an investigative reporter in Washington, D.C.