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DoD News Briefing: LTG (Retired) Dale Vesser, Deputy to the Special Assistant for Gulf WarIllnesses

Presenters: LTG (Retired) Dale Vesser, Deputy to the Special Assistant for Gulf WarIllnesses
August 15, 1997 12:35 PM EDT

LTG (Retired) Dale Vesser, Deputy to the Special Assistant for Gulf WarIllnesses

Col Bridges: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. This afternoon's on the record briefing is a single subject briefing. It will present the latest of two case narratives related to the Department of Defense's ongoing investigation into Gulf War Illnesses.

Today's briefer will be LTG (retired) Dale Vesser, deputy to the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses.

Gen Vesser has been with the organization since March and has served more than 42 years in the Department of Defense. He was Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Resources and Plans during the Gulf War and oversaw the preparation of the Department's official Gulf War history.

Without further ado, Gen Vesser.

Gen Vesser: Thank you. It's my privilege to stand in for Dr. Rostker today.

Today, we are going to talk about our fourth and fifth case narratives. These are narratives that explain, as you know, our investigation into incidents in the Gulf War that we have determined worthy of investigation.

The fourth narrative that I'll talk about is the SCUD missile sample. This missile piece or alleged missile piece was brought to the Presidential Advisory Committee by a veteran who said that he had not picked it up, but a fellow veteran had picked it up near King Khalid City after a SCUD impacted nearby.

The piece of metal originally was about this long [motions] and a piece had been cut off which had been submitted to two civilian laboratories for analysis. They refused to do an analysis on it.

The veteran who brought the piece to the Presidential Advisory Committee said that if you were in a closed room with this piece of metal, after about 10 minutes your eyes began to water and that, if you touched it, initially, your skin would redden where you had touched it, and then blisters would begin to form.

He suggested that it was contaminated with a chemical warfare agent. The piece was given to the Presidential Advisory Committee, who gave it to Dr. Rostker for testing and analysis.

Let me say right at the outset that we didn't try and duplicate the symptoms that the veteran described. We had no volunteers to go in closed rooms with this piece of metal.

Rather, we submitted the piece of metal that purportedly came from a SCUD missile to Edgewood Research and Development test facility and asked them to test to see if any chemical warfare agents were present.

Some of the chemical officers who work for Dr. Rostker told me that a persistent agent like mustard could be present for a long period of time and, if they had caused the symptoms the veteran described, the laboratory should be able to detect them. Of course, some of the non-persistent agents would no longer be present.

The report from the lab is that no chemical agent was present.

In addition, we submitted the piece of metal to the Missile and Space Intelligence Command. They tested the metallurgical content of the metal and concluded that it was consistent with the metal that could be expected to be in a SCUD missile.

Our assessment is that this piece of metal probably is from a SCUD missile and that it is unlikely that there was chemical warfare agent on it or that it had been contaminated by it.

Why "unlikely"? Why not "definitely not"?

Primarily, because we want to continue to encourage veterans to bring us any material they think is contaminated and causing symptoms, so that we can test that material.

In this case, this veteran chose to remain anonymous. We did not vigorously pursue an investigation of the chain of custody, but tested the piece, established that it was probably from a SCUD missile, and did not have a chemical warfare agent. So we rate it, we assess it as unlikely.

Moving on to our next case narrative, this case narrative involves Al Jubayl. You may recall that Al Jubayl is a port and planned industrial development city that is about 90 miles north of Dhahran. It and Dhahran are the ports that were used by our forces in staging and resupply. Dhahran was the major port. Al Jubayl is a smaller location, but it has been planned for industrial development.

It's important to understand this, because the Saudis not only built industry in a planned, and developed it in a planned way, in industrial parks, but they also built cantonment areas where foreign, third country workers could come in and work in these industries.

We used some of the facilities that had never been occupied by third country workers during the Gulf War to house troops who had deployed there.

This incident came to our attention because, before Congress, several veterans from a Reserve Naval construction battalion, Seabee 24, testified before Representative Shay's subcommittee that they had been exposed to chemical warfare agents during the time that they lived in Camp 13, one of these cantonment areas, in Al Jubayl.

We are going to address four incidents, most of them involving the 24th Seabee Battalion. But I ask you to bear in mind that there were other Seabee battalions; there were Marine units also located in Al Jubayl; the commander, Marine Expeditionary Force, Gen Boomer, had his headquarters in Al Jubayl during the Gulf War.

The first incident was in the early days of the air war. A loud noise was reported after air raid sirens had gone off in Al Jubayl, and the individuals who were called to general quarters by the air raid sirens went into MOPP 4. This is our highest degree of chemical protection. One is masked, has the gloves, the chemical warfare suit on, until the "All Clear" is given.

At the time, there were no reports of either M8A1 alarms that would have detected chemical warfare agent, or M256 kit detections.

The M256 kit is the most sensitive kit we had in the hands of troops. It's used to test before you de-mask, before you get the "All Clear" to de-mask, to see that it's safe to do so. There were no reports at the time of M256 positive detections.

Testifying before Representative Shays, over five years later, one veteran testified that he had had two positive M256 kit detections.

Among the people we interviewed subsequently was that individual's superior, who reported that, if there had been any positive 256 kit detections, he would have received the report, and he did not remember receiving a report. There are no log entries, at the time, that were made during the war, that report a positive 256 kit detection.

In addition, we, in looking at these reported chemical incidents, begin with what the veterans say, and we then go through records, we interview the chain of command.

Part of the records that were available to us for this one included tapes from the AWACS aircraft.

Next chart.

What we found was a report that there were two friendly coalition aircraft that were recorded electronically on the aircraft and early warning aircraft that were moving at well above mach one at very low level, along the paths you see indicated here over the period, during the time that the sonic boom was detected.

In addition, the commander of the Marine Air Wing near this location reported that it sounded to him at the time like a sonic boom.

You see here the location of Camp 13. I point that out on this chart, because just over here, a little bit to the north and east of where Camp 13 is located are where a series of these industrial plants were, and we'll be talking about them as we talk about one of the other incidents.

But let us go on.

It's very difficult, if you're trying to remember what happened five years ago, to keep one night straight from another. I mean, let's be fair to the veterans. They were there. They think they were exposed.

And we have the event I just described that we know, because we have the benefit of the tapes from the AWACS, happened on the night of the 19th -- the loud noise. But there was also an incident the very next night -- the 20th and early morning hours of the 21st -- where three SCUD missiles were fired at Dhahran.

You'll remember that Dhahran was the port that's about 90 miles south of Al Jubayl.

They were fired by the Iraqis. They were detected. Once again, the air raid siren went off. Once again, individuals got into MOPP. Once again, no chemical alarms went off.

Well, what happened? Suddenly, there were some high-altitude explosions. This was closer to midnight than 3:30 in the morning, as the previous incident. And there is a report of more than one explosion.

What we know now is that two SCUDs were fired at nearly the same time, and the third SCUD was fired seven minutes later. Five Patriot missiles were fired altogether, to intercept these SCUDs.

We believe that one SCUD was destroyed at high altitude over Al Jubayl and that another one was destroyed to the southeast of Al Jubayl. But the impact of these SCUDs was never located then and we don't know now where it may have happened. I would tell you that if a Patriot missile was close enough -- and remember that Patriots were not designed to shoot down SCUDs, but we were using them with some degree of success against the incoming SCUDs.

But if it was close enough so that its warhead detonated the warhead of the SCUD missile, which sort of varied from 600 kilograms of high explosive to 1,000, you could have had the entire missile as well as the remnants of the Patriot vaporized by this.

We do know that SCUDs are fueled with fuming nitric acid and kerosene. The veterans later reported receiving a mist and they said it burned their arms and their exposed body parts, so they decontaminated, showered. We can't explain the origins of that mist, but it is possible that it could be remnants in terms of droplets of that residual or spent fuel from the nitric acid that is one of the propellants that could have caused the burning sensation they described.

For the reasons I indicated--that is not chemical warfare alarms went off, there were no positive 256 kit detections on that evening, no reports in logs--our assessment is that it is unlikely that on the evening of January 20-21 that there was an exposure to chemical warfare agent.

This is not to say that another nationality unit didn't have a reported detection of, I believe it was mustard agent. We're talking about the British in this. But that was also not confirmed. And that occurred on this same evening. I just wanted to be certain that I've laid all the facts out.

There is one additional SCUD incident and this is the third incident that we want to talk about. On the night of February 16th, the Patriot battery near Al Jubayl was non-operational. And the Iraqis fired a SCUD missile which came in and splashed down about 1,000 meters away from the USS Terawa which was anchored in the harbor, between it and the pier where munitions were being unloaded.

There were some patrol boats in the vicinity. Once again, of course, the air raid warnings went off. Once again, there are no reports of chemical alarms going off. The patrol boats marked the location of the splash with a buoy. The next day scuba divers who were EOD qualified went out and did a survey of where the missile splashed down in the harbor. And what we have is that the warhead and other parts of this missile were raised.

Our finding in this case is based on the report of the EOD teams who recovered and checked out that warhead. Their report is that it was a conventional warhead filled with high explosives. That leads us to assess it as "Definitely Not" a chemical warfare agent exposure.

The last incident is a bit more complex. On the day of 19 March members from the [24th] Seabee Battalion were on detail here at Alpha Yard, which was a motor pool at a medical bunker where they were filling sandbags here in a northern group. Their location was about three quarters of a mile from this air monitor and from Camp 13.

Now, what's the air monitor? The Saudis not only planned this industrial development, they were influenced to meet environmental protection standards by the individuals who'd helped them develop this industrial park. They had eight air monitors spaced throughout the industrial area in Al Jubayl to detect nine different substances, chemical substances, that their levels all at standards that our EPA would approve of or better than the standards our EPA would require.

So that we actually have right here a monitor that was taking readings. In the back of your case narrative you will find the readings from the 19th of March that were taken from air monitor one.

Why would we want to take those? Well, the Marine -- sorry, the Seabees in these working parties reported that they were enveloped by what they characterized as a noxious cloud. The petty officer in charge of the detail in the motor pool, the southern-most location, reported that he'd seen some purple particles emerge from a smoke stack at the fertilizer plant that was about a mile upwind from their location and there was an immediate effect. The brown T shirts that the Seabees were wearing turned purple. That's why this is called the purple T shirt incident.

In addition, some of the fabric in their desert boots also turned purple in color. They began choking. Their throats were burning. Most of them escaped the cloud. One individual here at the bunker filling sand bags just put on his mask and continued to work. They went on immediate sick call and got medical attention. Once they got out of the cloud they began to recover and by the next day none of them are reported to have had any complaints.

When they were interviewed, and we have interviewed most of this working party, they did not register complaints about their health today.

We cannot explain why the cloud came over them if it were, in fact, released from one of the fertilizer plants and that could happen as an accidental release and not trigger this alarm. Unless the way the wind was blowing was it was sufficiently strong so the wind came over the group who were working here, but didn't diffuse whatever was being disseminated sufficiently for the air monitor to pick it up.

The one thing we are confident about is our assessment that there was not a chemical warfare agent involved in this incident on March 19th.

Now what do we intend to do about this? You'll recall that Dr. Rostker's emphasis is that our case narratives are interim reports. We are going to target notify every individual who our record shows was in Al Jubayl on the 19th and 20th of January and the 16th of February and the 19th of March. So, that if they have any additional information and they'll be given a summary of the conclusions -- I'm sorry, the assessments that I have just given you, they can provide us information so that we can further extend our knowledge of what happened at Al Jubayl.

I'm ready for your questions.

Q: How many people would that be that you are going to try to contact?

A: We're not certain. I can't tell you. We know that there are over 700 people in the 24th Seabee Battalion. There are a number of other Seabee battalions that were in the area. We know that there are a number of Marines, as well. So I can't give you a number. I would say that we're talking about a few thousand, at least. Yes?

Q: The piece of metal that was reported from SCUD on the 19th, is it from the three SCUDs or from different one? This is unclear or a case log conflicting.

A: Well, there are -- I will tell you that we believe that the piece of metal is from a different SCUD because it was retrieved around King Khalid City. Could I have the first chart?

King Khalid City is a couple of hundred miles away from Al Jubayl. King Khalid City is located right here. Al Jubayl is here. So we believe that if that was picked up as reported to us near King Khalid City then it is not part of one of the three SCUDs that I described.

Q: And when was that active at King Khalid?

A: That should be in the case narrative. I don't have the date right in -- right at the tip of my fingers. What date did the individual report finding the piece of SCUD from King Khalid City?

Lt Col Art Nalls: He reported finding, near, on January 19, '91.

A: So it's nearly the same day.

Q: The same day.

A: Right.

Q: So how can we determine whether it was Al Jubayl are or from King Khalid? How would...?

A: Well, I would tell you that we can't say that it wasn't except that the soldier who brought it in testified that it was, before the PAC, that it was acquired near King Khalid City and that the two are 200 -- about 200 miles apart.

And in this case a piece of SCUD would not be blown from Al Jubayl all the way to King Khalid City. So if, in fact, it was acquired near King Khalid City then it is not part of one of the three SCUDs that were fired at Dhahran on the 19th of January.

Q: The reason I raise this question because here it says, "Knowledge that there were no SCUD missiles launched in the direction of Saudi Arabia on January 19, 1991."

A: Launched in the direction of King Khalid City. Does it say, "in the direction of Saudi Arabia?"

Q: Saudi Arabia it says.

A: Well, I've just clarified that for you because we -- well, that's true. The missiles were launched on the 20th towards Dhahran, not on the 19th. Remember the 19th is a sonic boom. It's the 20th that the missiles were launched towards Dhahran.

Q: On the issue of the sonic booms, is that -- was that an action that occurred repeatedly in the area or just that night happened to be a night that -- I believe it's at night also?

A: That's at night at 3:32 in the morning.

Q: Is that standard that they will go supersonic at that time, the friendly aircraft in that area?

A: I can't say whether that is standard or not because I didn't serve in Al Jubayl. And consequently, I can't tell you whether they heard sonic booms frequently or not. Clearly this was an experience that was new for the 24th Seabees, as well as for most of the people who were there. It took an experienced flyer, the commander of the Marine air wing, who was located nearby to identify it at that time as a sonic boom.

Q: Do you know why they were flying above Mach 1? Is there any specific reason?

A: I do not.

Q: Do you know why the two civilian labs did not look at that piece of metal from the SCUD?

A: I do not know why they refused to accept it. Probably because after hearing about the symptoms that were associated with it, they didn't feel that they had the requisite protection in which to examine it. It was examined at Edgewood under the hood, while they were running the tests on it. Yes.

Q: Sir, you said you brought up the Shays Committee, of course, the -- one of those members of the 24th testified there, a fellow named Nick Roberts claimed that the next morning after the January 20th "loud noise" quote, unquote, commanders in formation told the troops never to mention the chemical alarms again because it would raise havoc. Was there any investigation done on that, whether that was a true statement or not?

A: I can't answer that, but let me turn to the chief of my chemical and biological incident investigating section. Come on up so you can address it.

Lt Col Nalls: I heard Mr. Roberts' statement when he made that testimony and we did look into that. And we have been unable to confirm that that statement was made by anyone. Certainly that's not what they meant if the words came out to that effect.

As the general had said, we had interviewed specifically the CO of the Marine detachment who was in the area and who would have been cognizant of all the aircraft activity in the area. And he was absolutely, unequivocally convinced that it was, in fact, a sonic boom by two Coalition aircraft.

A: I had a question over here. Yes.

Q: If the incident involving the cloud and the Seabees was not involving a chemical agent, what did envelope the Seabees at that time? And has DoD asked the Saudis if they have had incidents similar to this in recent years involving civilian workers?

A: Dr. Rostker is planning a trip to the Middle East. In terms of some of the people we have talked to, we have interviewed some individuals who have talked to Americans employed by firms in Al Jubayl who acknowledge -- not on the record but off the record -- that this kind of release could occur accidentally in their production processes.

Q: (Inaudible.)

A: Pardon me?

Q: Why won't they talk to you on the record you about it? Why have they told off the record about this stuff?

A: Primarily, I would think, because they are not working for American corporations.

Q: Would any type of cloud from a fertilizer plant, would that set off any chemical alarm? Military alarms? Or would the nitric acid pellets coming down from the sky from an explosion, could that set off any alarms?

A: We believe as a result of lab tests of the clothing, the T-shirts, something that I didn't mention, that the T-shirts changed color because they were exposed either to nitrous oxide, which is a by-product, as I understand it, of nitric acid, or sulfuric acid. Would it set off alarms? I do not believe that it will set off our chemical alarms, but one of the potential fuels we're talking about is kerosene. You're aware that all our chemical alarms are subject to false positives from some things called inferents. These are things that are associated with hydrocarbons; take example, oil, fire, smoke, diesel exhaust.

So that if there were -- if there had been kerosene in this cloud-like mist, then there is a possibility that if it is an inferent -- and I'd have to check because there is a long list of inferents and I don't have that in my head right now -- of what might trigger the M-8 chemical alarm. But the M-8 chemical alarms did not go off on that day. Yes.

Q: Just one other question. What do you say to critics who are saying with all these case narratives, you are just -- in the Pentagon de-bunking mode, and you are going to pick off all these case narratives to de-bunk the myth of Gulf War Illness, to prove what you want to prove and not have to pay vets?

A: I would say to them that we are making our best effort to thoroughly investigate every alleged incident of positive chemical warfare exposure. We are not hiding anything. If you go to GulfLINK and pull up our footnotes, you will find in there our documentation but, in addition, you will find discussion of cases of people who disagree with what we're saying.

We are trying to find what happened, and we're trying to do that starting with what the veterans say and coming back and working -- not just with what veterans who say something happened, but we're talking to a much larger group of veterans so we can put what they say in the framework of our case methodology, which is derived from a U.N. methodology for investigating chemical incidents.

And it looks at the total context in which an incident occurred and tries to determine what happened. We are also open to further information.

Q: Could you address The Washington Times story? This squalane issue and the missing 700,000 service records the paper says? Not service records, medical records?

A: Shot records. Well, I would say in the first place that we are not missing all the medical records during the Gulf War. Many veterans complain legitimately that their medical records are missing, and at the moment we are trying to find missing hospital records that we know are not there.

We know that not every shot -- especially some of the shots that were considered classified at that time -- were recorded on shot records or in medical records. We know that from interviews with veterans. We know that from how things were handled with respect to how the medical corps was going about administering the shot against anthrax and against anti-botulin.

Now that's just to say that there are missing medical records and there are cases of non-entries, but there aren't 700,000 of them. Because we didn't have sufficient vaccine to give to everybody at the time the war began or before the war began to protect them from the sorts of agents they might have been exposed to.

I can say categorically that Squalane was not a adjuvant that was in any of the vaccines that were used by the Department of Defense at the time. I'm not a doctor. I will tell you that I do not want to go into a great deal of detail except to say that this is not the first research that has charged the Department of Defense with having some adjuvant that had an adverse effect on veterans' health.

The previous work was an assertion by a researcher, who was a physician, who claimed that an adjuvant that had an effect was looked at by the Walter Reed Medical Lab, an independent foundation, and considered to be without merit because there were assertions that adjuvants were present that the Department of Defense had used in its vaccine that the Department never used.

The Department has never used anything that -- but FDA-approved adjuvants to its vaccines and that was what the troops got. They got U.S. vaccine during the Gulf War.

I would say finally that I have been told that recently there has been small use of Squalane as an adjuvant in some anti-malarial vaccine that some 50 test volunteers have been exposed to that this vaccine has never been used. None of this had happened at the time of the Gulf War. That is recent. That's all I can say on the subject.

Press: Thank you.