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Uncovering secret chemical weapon victims of the Iraq war

October 15, 2014 at 6:30 PM EDT
During the Iraq war, American soldiers were unknowingly exposed to old chemical weapons long abandoned by Saddam Hussein’s regime. The story of the troops who were injured trying dismantle the contaminated weapons has been kept secret until now. Judy Woodruff learns more from C.J. Chivers of The New York Times about his investigation.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a previously untold story of the Iraq war.

American soldiers on the ground were tasked with destroying thousands of rockets and artillery shells left behind by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Some of those weapons contained chemical or nerve agents like mustard gas, remnants of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.

That wasn’t known, however, to the American troops who were assigned to destroy them. The New York Times has now published an investigation into the chemical weapons and the injuries sustained by some of those soldiers, which had not been publicly known.

We start with an excerpt of a short documentary The Times produced. In it, we see the destruction of mustard gas shells. We hear from some of the soldiers wounded by exposure.

And a warning:  It contains some graphic images and details.

C.J. CHIVERS, The New York Times: Footage taken by the infantry on the perimeter shows the destruction of the chemical shells. Exposure symptoms soon appeared.

SGT. PHILIP DUKETT: We got out. We washed our hands. We didn’t think much of it. When we were driving back, my knife was on my leg on my right thing. And it was irritating me, so I thought it was my knife. I went to bed and woke up that morning with a small blister.

C.J. CHIVERS: Sergeant Dukett’s blister grew to the size of his fist. The medics acted quickly. He and another soldier were rushed to a military hospital, then flown to Germany.

By then, the blister covered his upper thigh. His medical records are explicit. He had been exposed to mustard agent. None of this was known to the Sergeant Duling’s team as they began suffering on another base. The clinic where they sought care seemed unprepared to treat them.

STAFF SGT. ERIC J. DULING: I actually had one doctor say, well, if you’re not defecating on yourself or foaming at the mouth, there’s nothing we can do for you. And I said, that’s great, because, if we were like that, it would be nerve agent and we would be dead.

SPC. ANDREW T. GOLDMAN, Former Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician, U.S. Army: The next day, I wake up. I looked like I had a complete body sunburn, just red in places that have never seen the sun. The first — the first doctor I saw told me that I haven’t — I wasn’t hit with mustard agent, and she said because I wasn’t throwing up or I wasn’t sick or showing severe blistering and stuff like that.

C.J. CHIVERS: For two weeks, the wounded soldiers received only minimal treatment.

SPC. ANDREW T. GOLDMAN: The blister on my butt cheek had gotten a lot bigger. And I had also had blisters forming on my thighs. They were large up top and they started getting smaller as they went down.

STAFF SGT. ERIC J. DULING: Some other people in the unit were like, this is not right, these guys should be looked at. So we took pictures of Goldie, wrote down our symptoms, and we sent through back channels back to the States.

C.J. CHIVERS: At last, the military’s medical system woke up. Sergeant Duling’s three-man team was flown from Iraq, but told not to discuss the incident.

SPC. ANDREW T. GOLDMAN: When we got to Walter Reed, we were there a few days and they — they called us in and said, you have been exposed to mustard agent.

STAFF SGT. ERIC J. DULING: And all of us came up positive for having H.D. mustard, distilled mustard in our blood streams.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re joined now by Christopher “C.J.” Chivers. He’s the New York Times reporter who wrote that story and narrated the clip we just saw.

Welcome to the “NewsHour,” Chris Chivers.

First of all, where did these nerve agents come from and other chemical agents?

C.J. CHIVERS: Well, the nerve and the mustard agents had been made in Iraq during the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein had a chemical weapons productions program that was creating munitions for use against Iranians in the Iran/Iraq War.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And was there a U.S. role in all of that?

C.J. CHIVERS: Well, it’s interesting you ask that, because the first information that came to us was that these rounds were American-made.

And we ultimately concluded that there wasn’t evidence for that. Some of the shells, many of the mustard shells were an American design. And they had been knocked off by European firms and sold to Iraq empty and filled in a West German-made chemical production plant in Iraq.

And so by the time the shells came to be used and improvised explosive devices were found out on the battlefield in caches, they had sort of a complicated parentage and had had roots in many different countries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But these were not the weapons of mass destruction that President Bush had talked about as the rationale for going into Iraq; is that right?

C.J. CHIVERS: These rounds were all left over, as near as we can tell and according to everyone who we talked to who was involved — and we have talked to the majority of the — the people who collected the majority of them.

They were all manufactured before 1991. This is remnant stock. This is leftover, abandoned weapons from an old program that had ceased operating in the early 1990s.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, you — you wrote that the troops repeatedly encountered these contaminated weapons, parts of weapons. What were they supposed to do with them when they found them?

C.J. CHIVERS: They often didn’t find them while looking for them. They found them while looking for something else or dealing with another problem.

One of the features of the Iraq war was that improvised explosive devices or makeshift bombs became the primary cause of wounds for the American troops. And so there were groups of people whose mission primarily was to try to counter those weapons. And they would be working and they would go to scenes where bombs had been detonated or bombs had been found or where they thought bombs were being made, parts of bombs were being stored.

And they would try to disable and destroy them. Almost all of those weapons were conventional, but it was a sort of sad feature of the lottery system that every now and then, one of those weapons or some of those weapons would be leftover chemical shells. And they were, visually, virtually identical in many cases.

So the soldiers, in the sort of capacity of trying to disable a — what they thought was a conventional bomb, would go forward and destroy a chemical bomb, and then be exposed by it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you identified 17 U.S. troops, seven Iraqi soldiers who were exposed. Do we think — or do you think that’s all there is, because the military isn’t saying?

C.J. CHIVERS: We think there’s more. We have had a lot of other people contact us. We haven’t verified all of their incidents.

The military’s told us that there are at least some more. They have also told us they don’t have an accurate count, so they don’t know. And there may have been people who were exposed and didn’t realize they were exposed. So whatever the official numbers are, they may be small.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why did the military tell you that these troops needed to be quiet about this, not talk about it?

C.J. CHIVERS: Well, the military hasn’t given us a clear answer for that. The various participants have said that their local commanders or visiting officers, colonels, or in one case a general, had told them not to disclose it.

But what happened with these incidents is they were all classified secret in real time, and they sort of got lost, it seems, in the system and not shared. And so, as this was going on, it’s the habit of secrecy that we have sort of seen. And we see it all the time in the military.

What we don’t know is why the military, which has done a lot of analysis on these and has a number of reports assembled on these, has not declassified the documents since the war or didn’t declassify the documents late in the war. And that’s a puzzle we can’t answer. We have filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests. We have had those requests denied.

We have had very limited disclosure of some heavily redacted documents. But we’d like to see the rest of the documents and we would like to what they say.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We did hear in that report, we know from your — from the story you wrote, the injuries that these men suffered, experienced. What’s happened to these men today?  How are they doing today?

C.J. CHIVERS: Some are still on active duty. Some are out. They’re veterans now. Some are doing quite well. Some aren’t.

Some complain of chronic respiratory distress, or shortness of breath, and lingering headaches. One has some issues. He believes it was — he was exposed to sarin, and he believes he’s had some short-term memory loss and some reading comprehension difficulties. But many of them are doing, it seems, OK.

But that’s an interesting question, because the military has treatment guidelines and an order that mandates that these patients are supposed to be followed for life. And in the main, they have not been followed at all. They’re simply not enrolled in any systematic tracking.

So, it’s kind of hard to say how they’re doing as an aggregate or whether the things they complain of — and many of these conditions can have more than one father, but — so the things they complain of, whether that’s directly related to their exposure or not, because there hasn’t — there hasn’t been a comprehensive tracking.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And last thing, do we know what’s happened, how many more weapons may still be in Iraq and who has control over them?

C.J. CHIVERS: I don’t know how many are still there.

There are some reports that there could be as many as 2,500 rocket warheads in one particular bunker out on Al Muthanna state enterprise, the old production facilities, which are largely ruins now in Iraq. And — but that area’s out of the government control. It’s now controlled by Islamic State.

Whether they have actually got access to the rounds or not, I’m not in a position to tell you. They certainly have proximity to the remains.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Chris Chivers, great reporting.

Christopher “C.J.” Chivers with The New York Times, we thank you.

C.J. CHIVERS: Thank you.

 

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