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DoD News Briefing: General Dale Vesser,

Presenters: General Dale Vesser,
July 31, 1997 12:00 PM EDT

Deputy Special Assistant for Gulf War Illness

General Vesser: Those of you who follow Gulf War illnesses know that Dr. Rostker, my boss, is in Buffalo testifying before the Presidential Advisory Committee. We've taken this opportunity to go ahead and issue our first information paper on the Fox detection vehicle; and our third case narrative on Marine Corps breaching, simultaneously in Buffalo and down here.

The Fox information paper and vehicle capability is key to many of our investigation finders. This is the Fox. It's German designed, German built. It was designed primarily to assess heavy, persistent chemicals that the Soviet Union had a lot of. It's not primarily designed for detecting vapor agents. So when the Germans offered us 60 of these vehicles before the Gulf War, we had to modify it. We had to Americanize it.

We put the 43A1 detector, which is part of our M8 alarm system -- it is quite a sensitive vapor detective for chemical weapons agents -- in the vehicle. In addition, we put in American radios, English labels, and air conditioned the vehicle so that it would provide an over-pressure protection against exposure for those who crewed it.

It's crewed by a crew of four. I would not that this is the commander's station here. As I talk about the Marine Corps breaching, we'll be talking about the commander. The two individuals who operate the sampling arm and the spectrometer sit in the back of the vehicle.

How does the vehicle detect chemical agents? It does this in a two-step process. The vehicle has a library in its computer of some 60 chemical substances, and the operator can select about 10 chemical warfare agents that he would like the vehicle to detect. It is set to provide an initial alert to these, or to alarm, depending on the concentrations that are present. This permits early warning to the troops. The second stage of the detector involves the use of the spectrometer by the crew following procedures to separate genuine alarms from false positives through the design of the spectrometer, the processes they employ, and the techniques that they use.

This is a highly capable detection system, but it can have false positives. False positives can occur because the sensitivity on the alerting leads to very early warning when low amounts of agent are present, or because inferents -- these are substances which have ions similar to the chemical warfare agents -- are present, causing the system to alert when no agent is present.

There are many battlefield contaminants which are inferents. Examples are oil, lubricant. In the Gulf War, smoke from oil well fires often gave false positives.

One thing is that it does take time. If you get the initial alert to go into the second stage, it takes anything from five to twelve minutes to let the heater on the probe cool down; you have to take a second sample. If you're in a tactical situation, you may find that the vehicle is in a vulnerable position and is not able to do all of those things.

Gulf War use, we found several things. First, that crew training was limited before the war because we didn't get many of the vehicles until just before the war. Our crews had about 22 days of training versus the five weeks that we give them today.

Secondly, the Fox vehicle got lost when it didn't have the opportunity to update its location. We've since replaced that location system with the GPS which is far more accurate.

The sampling wheel in the back was fragile, could break in rough terrain. In addition, at least some sampling wheels were themselves made from materials that were inferents, so that when you brought the sampling wheel up, you got a false positive.

Lastly, maintenance on the Fox required special tools and parts which were often unavailable locally.

What's the bottom line on the Fox vehicle? First, it carries state of the art technology -- if you've got time to use it -- to the battlefield. It's highly capable of chemical detection, properly used. But the capability to use it depends upon the situation that the vehicle and the unit it is assigned to is in. It's not a perfect vehicle, but it was the best we had. It provides a limited capability in fast-moving situations to detect agents, but we had absolutely nothing going into the Gulf War and we welcomed the German contribution. Understanding the vehicle's capabilities are key to understanding why we have reached some of the assessments we have in the incidents under investigation.

In the Marine Corps breaching narrative, both detections occurred by Fox vehicles, and that's why we wanted to release this information paper at this time.

The first we knew of the Marine Corps breaching incident was Gunnery Sergeant Grass' testimony before Congress when he testified that there were trace elements of chemical warfare agents detected during the breaching conducted on the first day of the war by the 1st Marine Division.

A breach is a very complicated operation, because you take about 50 miles of front and compress it down to a very narrow area where we have to make a penetration. All the thousands of vehicles of the 1st Marine Division has to go through the lanes, so that they have to go through at a speed and in a carefully regulated fashion so that our vehicles are not masked so the enemy can bring them under artillery fire.

In this instance, there were two minefields which had to be penetrated in both Marine division areas. It's a complex operation, requires very deliberate planning, careful control, skillful execution and quick reaction to what the enemy might do.

Now most people cover minefields with artillery fire or with direct fire weapons such as antitank weapons.

One of the reasons that we investigated this incident was there was a great deal of controversy. In the first place there was controversy about what the Marines on the scene reportedly said, what the chain of command knew about detection equipment capabilities, and there have been conflicting post-war assessments. Our investigation methodology is based upon work done by the United Nations. What we try and do is go through all the relevant factors that may bear on an incident. Then, and what we know now, in order to make an assessment. These are the kinds of things that we looked at.

We looked at what Gunnery Sergeant Grass had said -- low level chemical contaminants. But he didn't say anything about this publicly, he didn't blow the whistle as he was going through the minefield. He saw what was on the scope, he continued moving. He didn't report it to anyone until he spoke to the Congress. That's not quite correct. He did have a face-to-face, probably one to two hours with his NBC officer in the battalion task force that was making the penetration and he said he'd seen these things. They together said they weren't worth reporting at the time.

Gunnery Sergeant Grass' driver said he didn't find anything, in a written statement to us subsequently.

At the Presidential Advisory Committee hearing, Gunnery Grass' spectrometer operator supported Gunnery Grass when he said that he picked up low level traces.

This was a dirty battlefield. That is, there was oil and other inferents present on it. There were no Fox tapes which we could analyze. Intelligence data, of course, said that the Iraqis had the capability to deliver chemical agents against our forces, either by rocket or by artillery. The chain of command, when interviewed, said that there was no indication on that day or subsequently, that chemical weapon agents had been used.

Minefield clearing operations were not relevant in this instance. But the medical evidence was that no Marine in the 1st Marine Division had been treated for a chemical warfare exposure on that day.

Our conclusion--I won't call it a conclusion, I'll call it an assessment because this is an interim report and these are interim findings--on a scale of "Definitely Not, Unlikely, Indeterminant, Likely, or Definitely a Chemical Agent" are that it is Unlikely that any chemical agents were identified on that day or that any Marines were exposed within the 1st Marine Division.

The second case is more complicated. The 2nd Marine Division was going through in, it's my belief, that there were six lanes with a couple of lanes cleared, when one vehicle, the third vehicle through Red Lane 1, hit a mine. The Fox vehicle following was commanded by Master Sergeant Bradford. Master Sergeant Bradford, testifying in Charleston at the Presidential Advisory Committee said that shortly after that, in his vehicle, the scope was peaking out and that he was convinced that he was surrounded by masses of chemical agent. The Fox vehicle alerted for Sarin, a nerve gas, and two blister agents -- Mustard and Luicite. He hollered, "Gas, gas, gas. The system worked." An NBC report was generated which went through his division, his battalion task force and Task Force Ripper which it was part of, went into MOPP-4 -- that's full protective gear. I forgot to mention, in the other incident no one ever got out of MOPP-2 because, of course, there was no reason to get out of MOPP-2. So they got fully protected, and according to Master Sergeant Bradford's testimony, he drove, he doesn't know how far he drove -- this was in Charleston -- but he thinks it was about 20 minutes until he hit a hard asphalt road that was meant to be a rally point. In that period of time the peaks had subsided, and they unmasked.

What we do know, in addition to what we have from him, is that the Marines in his vehicle back up his testimony that they did, in fact, get these kinds of readings on the scope. But other Marines on the scene -- the Marines who were in the vehicle that hit the mine, were in MOPP-2 at the time. They got out of the vehicle. They were not exposed to any chemical weapon agent. They didn't mask. Later, when the mine was examined that had disabled their vehicle, it was found not to be a chemical mine.

The chain of command remembers that they passed the report up, but they also, later in the day, in the NBC chain, considered it a false positive because there was no other indication that any gas had been delivered or any chemical agent had arrived. If it had come, where had it come from? There was no artillery at the time. It was Master Sergeant Bradford's contention that it had been delivered by the mine. The intelligence we had indicated that the Iraqis had the capability to make chemical mines, but no chemical mines made by the Iraqis were ever found by intelligence sources. The people who had the EOD, that is the Explosive Ordnance Demolition contract, in Kuwait after the war, dug up over 340,000 pieces of ordnance. They never found a single chemical mine after the war.

It was a very dirty battlefield, and there was a lot of oil on the battlefield, by Master Sergeant Bradford's own testimony.

In this instance, Fox tapes do exist and they were given by Master Sergeant Bradford to us. We have had them analyzed. Remember, though, that this is five, six years after the event. People sitting in arm chairs can make judgments that Marines in a combat situation, particularly when the print is about this high if you look at the report we've given you, it does say yes, Sarin, it does say Mustard, it does say Luicite, but it also says, "Fats, oils, and waxes." These are all known inferents and they appear in the tape, so that the judgment of two government labs and the NIS, the National Institute for Science and Technology, is that this was a false positive.

Were there any casualties? One Marine in a vehicle following Master Sergeant Bradford's Fox received, when he got out to put on, to close the hatches on his vehicle as they went into MOPP-4, he had not yet put on his gloves but he had masked, what he thought was a burn from a chemical agent on the back of his hand. He was later examined that day, after going to see his company commander, by both a medical corpsman and a medical officer. The doctor made the determination that, whatever he had, it was not sufficient to prevent him from going back to duty and it was definitely not a chemical agent wound. They can be quite distinctive.

We followed this up with interviews of that Marine's friends in his outfit, of his chain of command. He was recommended by his platoon commander later for a Purple Heart based on this incident, but as there was no medical statement that he required medical treatment because of the injury, he did not receive the Purple Heart.

We continue to investigate this, but on our scale of Definitely a Chemical, Likely a Chemical, Indeterminant, Unlikely, and Definitely Not a Chemical Agent, we conclude... Sorry, we assess that this was not a chemical agent identification, nor were Marines exposed to chemical agent during the minefield breaching.

Now what are we going to do about this? We're going to notify the people who were witnesses as to our findings by letter; we'll give them a summary of the narrative and tell them where they can get a copy of the narrative, as well as all those who have expressed interest.

I'm ready for your questions.

Q: The Marine who had exposure to his hand, does he have any health problems today?

A: Call on a good Marine. Do you know whether the individual has health problems today? This is Lieutenant Colonel Art Nalls, who's Chief of our Chemical and Biological Weapons Incidents.

Colonel Nalls: He has reported no major symptoms. He's reported, and I don't think he's even been examined by the CCEP.

Q: No major symptoms, but there are some symptoms found.

Colonel Nalls: I don't think he's had any symptoms. I'll have to go back and take a look at that. I don't have that answer right handy.

Q: Why were there no tapes available from the Fox vehicle for the first incident?

A: Because we don't know whether tapes were made and lost, or whether they just didn't make a tape.

Now the vehicle, if it was running properly, should have been producing tapes, but there was no requirement to save any tapes from Fox vehicles. The tapes we have, we have because they were kept by good non-commissioned officers who thought they might have some historical interest.

Q: So you think there were no artillery or rockets that could have produced gas with the Marine breaching Fox, is that correct?

A: That's correct. We know of no way that the agent could have been delivered. We knew they had the capability to deliver by rocket or by artillery, and there was no incoming artillery at the time of the incident. There was some incoming artillery later as they were going through the second line up here, but they didn't detect anything as a result of that artillery fire.

Q: What was on their detector could have been some other hydrocarbon.

A: That's correct. Oil, fat and wax is the way it printed out.

Q: Rather than gas.

A: Right.

Q: So you basically are saying there's no evidence that any U.S. Marines or any U.S. service personnel in the minefield breaching were exposed to gas.

A: We say that it's unlikely.

Q: Unlikely. And unlikely in the other breaching as well.

A: That's correct. In both the 1st Marine Division and in the 2nd Marine Division.

Q: Do you know how many Marines from the 1st or 2nd Marine Division have either signed up for any of the Gulf War registries or have actually reported being ill?

A: I do not have that figure available. We can certainly get it.

Q: You mentioned that the Fox vehicles were not really made to detect vapor chemical agents, and they were so equipped with the M8s and M256 kits to help them out in that regard. Were there any M8s or M256 kits not on Fox vehicles that detected the presence of chemical agents in the theater?

A: Normally, had Master Sergeant Bradford not been in the middle of a minefield through which we were trying to move everybody as fast as possible, he would have taken a second sample, and he did take a spectrum. But he didn't print the spectrum out. The tapes we have that were generated automatically, and at that point in time in order to get a print to go into phase two you had to push a separate button that said Print.

The other thing that would have been SOP would have been to follow up with a 256 kit to see if you had a detection on the spot, if you were going to stay on the spot. But he moved on, and those Marines who subsequently used that lane, went into MOPP-4, masked and went through the lane.

Q: That incident generated an MEC-1, is that correct?

A: That's correct.

Q: In the 2nd Marine Division, how many Marines in that Division went to MOPP-4 and for how long?

A: So far as I know, the Marines in this vicinity and in Task Force Ripper went to MOPP-4 until they had cleared this area and had moved up to where they got an all clear which Master Sergeant Bradford gave them.

Q: So about 20 minutes or so?

A: I said it took him about 20 minutes to get there and make the determination that it was safe to unmask as he was pressed by his commander and they unmasked and there were no ill effects.

Q: Now you've got two other possible gassings. You have the Khamisiyah participants falling out. Have you yet been able from the data you have on Gulf War illness and where the troops were that have shown up with some symptoms, have you any correlation when you analyze it, to those potential gas sources?

A: We have not. I would tell you, of course, emphasize as Dr. Rostker did last week, that there's no connection that we've been able to establish thus far between low level exposure and long term health effects. Of course if you got a high dose of gas, it can be lethal or incapacitating, as Dr. Rostker explained last Thursday, using his chart.

Q: In Gulf War illness then, you're finding no scientific correlation to any known gas...

A: I don't way we're finding no correlation. I would say that medical research is in progress to establish such connection as there may be, but that it has not been established.

Q: Not yet established.

A: Not yet established.

Q: But you should have data by now to tell you if you're heading in the right direction there, if you have any kind of indications that there will be a correlation. Or can you respond to that?

A: We try and follow the medical research closely, but at this point in time we do not have an indication that we're getting those kinds of results.

Q: You mentioned outreach. Are you going to be contacting all the Marines in the 2nd Division or just those that were with Ripper? Who is it that you're targeting...

A: We're targeting those who testified or those who have expressed an interest to us directly in terms of making an inquiry or are in our database with respect to this incident. The reason we're not targeting everybody in either division is this is the first of four incidents that we are looking at -- the minefield breaching incidents, Al Jaber, the Orchard ASP, and there's one other one. The 11th Marines. Once we have completed addressing each of these, it's our plan to notify the individuals who are most immediately concerned. Then once we've been through all of them, we'll consider whether it's appropriate to contact all the Marines.

Q: Where is our equipment, the NBC equipment, the Fox, the M8, M256, as we had it in the Gulf, how does that stack up against the Czech equipment that the Czech troops had in the Gulf?

A: I can't address that in detail. What I can tell you is that the Czech equipment seems to be a good deal more sensitive than our equipment in that it is capable of detecting, making the detection somewhere below where our equipment is most sensitive.

You'll recall last week when Dr. Rostker briefed you on the large lavender cloud, part of that area would have been detectable by the Czech equipment. It is not detectable by any equipment we have fielded. But the 256 kit is our most sensitive. It's the one we use to determine whether to unmask or not.

Q: And that was not used in the Gulf?

A: That was used in the Gulf, but it was not used in either of these incidents.

I would note that we do have a list of home towns for National Guard and Reserve units. You can see Captain Gilroy and he can give you a list of those. The press asked Dr. Rostker for them.

Press: Thank you.