Senate Raps Investigation, Chemical Warfare Training
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 22, 1998 A new Senate report criticizes the federal investigation of Gulf War illnesses but generally supports findings suggesting there's no single cause of the illnesses. Moreover, most military units are not adequately trained to respond to future chemical or biological attacks, the report said.
"There is no smoking gun in this report, no explosive new evidence that says 'whodunit' and why," committee member Sen. Robert Byrd said. But the report confirms that veterans were exposed to "a poison cocktail of hazardous materials, that many are now ill, and that the bureaucratic response has been slow and stumbling," Byrd said.
The DoD investigation didn't integrate crucial weather information provided by the Air Force, according to the Sept. 1 report from the special investigation unit of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. Neither did the department subject its findings to important critical scientific review by outside experts, the report said.
A scientific consultant contracted by the Senate investigators supported these criticisms. The consultant also said DoD grossly overestimated the numbers of service members who may have been exposed to chemical warfare agents.
The investigating unit found no evidence to either prove or disprove Iraq used chemical weapons during the Gulf War. However, the report concluded that the U.S. military was not adequately prepared to deal with the threat of biological or chemical warfare and is still unprepared today.
"Although the threat of chemical and biological warfare has increased since the Gulf War and hangs heavy over the potential battlefields of the 21st century, the military still has inadequate supplies of vaccines and chemical biological protective equipment," the report said.
"Almost eight years after the Gulf War, our military is still not prepared to fight in a chemical or biological warfare environment, said committee member Sen. Jay Rockefeller. The senator pointed to a DoD inspector general report that corroborates these findings.
The IG report, released July 17, said only the Navy's surface ships have fully integrated chemical and biological defenses into the unit training mission. The DoD inspectors reviewed 232 military units. At 187 of the units, "commanders could not adequately assess unit readiness to successfully complete wartime missions under chemical and biological conditions," the IG report stated. Management controls "needed improvement to ensure that chemical and biological defense is fully integrated into all levels of unit training," the report concluded.
Bernard Rostker, who heads the DoD Gulf War illness investigation, said the Senate report contains good insight about the investigation and recommendations for improvement.
"While there are some criticisms, which we will address, we appreciate the good working relationships developed with the [special investigation unit] staff who traveled with us to search for answers to help veterans," Rostker said. "We look forward to continuing this work with the committee."
In an earlier statement, Rostker praised DoD for taking lessons learned from the Gulf War to develop new protective measures for deployed troops. He said his investigation revealed a need for better record-keeping, medical surveillance, environmental sampling and forward-deploying biological detection. Since the Gulf War, he said, DoD has fielded a new gas mask, tested medical dog tags and begun developing improved chemical alarm systems.
"I can't take direct credit, but the importance of these issues is consistent with what we have learned," he said.
DoD also has launched a departmentwide vaccination program that eventually will provide every service member and certain civilian employees and contractors with protection against anthrax, a deadly nerve agent that can be easily weaponized. Anyone deploying to the Persian Gulf receives the shots, and those assigned to units in South Korea received the first of a series of six required inoculations in September.