The Department of Defense released today the updated version of its case narrative, "Reported Mustard Exposure Operation Desert Storm." This report changes the assessment from "likely" to "indeterminate" that a soldier was exposed to mustard agent during the Gulf War. The new assessment is based upon conflicting information between key pieces of physical evidence.
While both the General Accounting Office and the Presidential Special Oversight Board agreed with the original information presented in the 1997 case narrative that an exposure to a chemical warfare agent was likely, both recommended further investigation into the incident. Investigators from the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses re-examined existing evidence, conducted additional research, consulted with subject-matter experts and interviewed additional witnesses.
The investigation surrounds the March 2, 1991, diagnosis of then-Pfc. David A. Fisher as having been exposed to liquid mustard chemical warfare agent. Among the strongest evidence supporting the conclusion that he was exposed to a chemical warfare agent were statements from well-trained medical personnel who diagnosed and treated the injury as an exposure to mustard agent. A leading expert in the field of chemical warfare agent injuries concurred with the diagnosis of chemical warfare agent injury. However, in 1995 and 1999 interviews, this expert also stated that other causes could explain Fisher's injury. Because another cause could not be found, the nature of the injury remains open. Additionally, a urinalysis failed to detect thiodiglycol, a mustard breakdown product. This result was inconsistent with the diagnosis, but not unexpected considering the low-level of exposure.
Crewmembers from a XM93 Fox Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Reconnaissance Vehicle who used the MM-1 Mobile Mass Spectrometer remember detecting sulfur mustard and sesqui-mustard. However, surviving physical evidence, in particular the MM-1 printout tapes from the coverall and flak jacket tests, disagrees with their recollections. The only surviving evidence that supports a mustard exposure was a videotape of the MM-1 operator's screen during an examination of the flak jacket. While the videotape evaluated in 1993 by an expert as a valid detection, further examination in 2000 revealed the sample was missing critical ions necessary for mustard presence.
Additionally, the location of the bunker where Fisher was believed exposed was 100 miles from Iraq's nearest chemical warfare storage facility according to the CIA and the United Nations Special Committee on Iraq. The CIA and UNSCOM have reported no evidence that Iraq moved any chemical warfare agents south of Khamisiyah.
Taking all the facts surrounding the incident into account, the medical diagnosis by trained medical and chemical warfare agent injury experts and the videotape lead to the conclusion that a mustard exposure was likely. On the other hand: further analysis of the videotape showed critical ions for mustard was missing; other causes for the blisters exist; there is no evidence of chemical weapons in that area; and laboratory tests failed to identify any trace of the chemical warfare agent. Therefore, because of the conflicting evidence, investigators are less certain and reassessed this incident as indeterminate.
Today, Fisher is a private citizen in good health. He received an advanced copy of this report about which he had no comment for the Office of the Special Assistant. This case is still under investigation. Veterans who may have additional information are encouraged to call the veterans' hotline at (800) 497-6261. This narrative is posted on GulfLINK at http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/fisher_ii .