Gulf veterans from Maryland worry about chemical exposure Riverdale-based unit witnessed '91 demolition of Iraqi weapons depot

November 03, 1996|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- At first they thought they were witnessing a military fireworks display in the desert as U.S. Army engineers destroyed Iraqi weapons at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Now they are wondering if they were gassed.

Army reservists serving in a Maryland unit were among the troops closest to the demolition of what is now known to have been an Iraqi chemical weapons cache containing rockets armed with either mustard gas or the lethal nerve agent sarin.

A company from the 450th Civil Affairs Battalion, of Riverdale, was billeted outside the perimeter fence of the Iraqi weapons storage site at Kamisiyah when Army engineers blew up the depot in March 1991.

"They wired the thing and blew it sky high," said Col. King F. Davis Jr., who as a lieutenant colonel commanded the battalion during the gulf war. "We were standing right underneath the cloud."

Davis' driver at the time, Spc. Larry Williams, now a reserve sergeant, said: "The whole time we were down there you could see explosions from the munitions, constantly exploding all night long.

"As far as chemicals, I guess nobody knew there were chemicals in that area. I thought we were just trying to destroy equipment."

Medical screenings

Because chemical weapons are now known to have been at the site, the Pentagon is urging members of the unit -- and 20,000 other troops -- who were within a 31-mile radius of the demolition site to seek medical screening if they have experienced health problems that they suspect may be associated with chemical contamination.

Another member of the battalion, Maj. Kenneth H. Pritchard, a human resources officer with the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority, was in charge of a holding camp for foreign nationals caught up in the war -- mainly Kuwaitis and Egyptians -- at Kamisiyah.

'Normal-type explosion'

Now a lieutenant colonel with the Special Operations Command attached to MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., he recalled: "We saw the cloud appear. We just continued our business. I have seen a lot of explosions. This was just a normal-type explosion, massive explosion, nothing special.

"There was no notice at all that there might be chemical weapons involved in this. Where we were, none of the chemical (( alarms went off."

No one in the 450th battalion was immediately and obviously affected by escaping chemicals, officials say. According to the Pentagon, only one of four portable chemical alarms in the area went off, and immediate tests to double-check the alert suggested a false alarm.

"Obviously, there wasn't a high-level [dose] because with high-level we would have people who were dying, people snorting, pupils dilating, tightness of chest, people falling over -- all those things you saw when people [were] stumbling out of the Tokyo subway" after the 1995 terrorist attack with sarin, said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.

The Pentagon has launched a study of possible long-term effects of low-level poisoning.

The Pentagon announced last week that on March 4, 1991, an estimated 550 rockets armed with sarin or mustard gas were destroyed.

As many as 840 other rockets, possibly containing chemicals, may have been destroyed on March 10 or 12, according to Pentagon officials.

No protection

At an on-site briefing in Kamisiyah before the blasts, Davis and his men were told by demolition engineers that no chemical weapons were at the site, so they did not wear their protective chemical warfare suits.

"We sure wouldn't have been standing in that cloud if we knew there was anything wrong with it," said Davis, 48, a law enforcement officer and reservist who commands a basic training brigade with the 80th Training Division in Salem, Va.

The issue of chemical poisoning during the gulf war has been contentious, with some veterans claiming that exposure to Iraqi chemical weapons was responsible for what has become known as gulf war syndrome, a collection of ailments ranging from sore joints to insomnia among affected troops.

Davis said up to 20 soldiers from his 100-plus battalion were stationed at Kamisiyah.

Flu-like symptoms

Asked if any of his men reported ailments immediately after the blast, Davis replied: "No, no, no. Everybody was working. I do remember people still blowing their noses, spitting and cussing. I can't say certainly that at that time anybody said, 'You think we got gassed?' That never came up."

The assumption, he said, was that any sniffling at the time was the lingering effect of a flu epidemic that hit the unit while it was being mobilized for service in the gulf the previous January.

"It was cold and raining and we were in old wooden barracks. Everybody in mobilization got this flu," said Davis, who is now undergoing the medical screening suggested by the Pentagon.

He refused to discuss any symptoms he might have that could possibly be related to his time in the gulf.

Still healthy

Williams, his driver, is also in the screening program.

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