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Pentagon Credibility Shot Down

New disclosure justifies an outside inquiry on Gulf War toxins

September 22, 1996

For the second time in three months the Pentagon has acknowledged the possibility that a large number of U.S. personnel were exposed to debilitating chemical weapons in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War.

The latest disclosure says that up to 5,000 troops, not just the 400 or so originally reported last June, could have come into contact with toxic materials from a weapons storage complex called Khamisiyah in southern Iraq. Days after the fighting ended, the facility was demolished by members of the 37th Engineering Battalion. Perhaps unknown when the demolition was carried out was that the weapons bunker contained the nerve agent sarin as well as mustard gas. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of troops in the area could have been exposed to airborne traces of these chemicals.

The Defense Department has insisted for years that it could find no evidence linking the many reported symptoms of what has come to be called Gulf War syndrome with possible environmental sources in the war zone. It has maintained instead that the medical and psychiatric problems reported by thousands of war veterans had no single identifiable cause and in fact were what was to be expected in those who have been through a war. For years the Pentagon also maintained there was no evidence that any exposure to chemical agents had taken place during the war.

No one, it seems, thought to look for possible exposure to poison gas and nerve agents after the war. Yet the information was there for the seeking. The military is a meticulous keeper of records. It knew what units were there when the Khamisiyah site was demolished. It knew, or learned soon after, what weapons that site contained; a secret memo describing the deadly inventory was circulated at high levels in 1991.

Why, then, has it taken more than five years to make a connection that should have been obvious early on? Was it a cover-up or simple incompetence? A lot remains to be explained.

Given the low level of credibility the Pentagon has earned for itself in this matter, an independent investigation has become the preferred means for seeking answers.

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