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October 16, 2014

U.S. soldiers were injured by Iraq chemical weapons, report shows


A new documentary from The New York Times reveals that American soldiers were exposed to chemical agents at the start of the 2003 Iraq War, sustaining injuries that they were instructed not to discuss.

Iraq had created chemical weapons in the 1980s for use during the Iran-Iraq War, in which Iran and Iraq each sought to resolve border disputes and become the dominant power in the Persian Gulf area.

At the time, the Soviet Union and the U.S. were in the midst of the Cold War and emerged on opposite sides of the Iran-Iraq conflict. With the Soviet Union supporting Iran in the war, the U.S. primarily supported Iraq and sold the country millions of dollars in weapons.

Several decades later, U.S. troops invaded Iraq in 2003 in an effort to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein and destroy weapons of mass destruction, which the U.S. administration believed Iraq was actively producing at the time.

U.S. troops never found the weapons of mass destruction they sought, but along the way soldiers encountered chemical agents that were left over from the Iran-Iraq War such as nerve gas and mustard gas. At least 17 troops were exposed to the agents and some developed serious injuries.

The soldiers were not specifically looking for these materials and usually found them while on an unrelated mission, according to C.J. Chivers, the Times writer who exposed the story.

Sergeant Eric J. Duling described seeing a small blister grow to the size of a fist after being exposed to mustard agent. Specialist Andrew T. Goldman said he woke up the morning after his exposure to mustard agent with what appeared to be a full-body sunburn.

Some soldiers were not extensively treated for their injuries until several weeks later, when they flew to the U.S. They were instructed not to discuss their symptoms with others.

It is unclear why the military asked troops not to discuss their injuries, and the military has not declassified any documents on the incidents.

Official treatment guidelines indicate that the military should monitor the health of these soldiers for the rest of their lives, but they are not doing so, Chivers said.

Warm up questions
  1. What do you know about the Cold War?
  2. Have you heard the phrase “weapons of mass destruction?” What does the term mean to you?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Why did the U.S. provide support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War? How could the U.S. sale of weapons to Iraq during this war complicate the military situation between Iraq and the U.S. later on?
  2. Why wouldn’t the military want soldiers to discuss their injuries? What are some risks of disclosing military medical information? What are the benefits?
  3. Why does knowing about these injuries matter? How can we use this information in future military actions?
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