Since last fall, the U.S. military has acknowledged that U.S. soldiers found thousands of abandoned chemical weapons in Iraq, and that hundreds of troops notified the military medical system that they believed they had been exposed to them.
The toxic vapors acted quickly against the 2nd Platoon of the 811th Ordnance Company, whose soldiers were moving abandoned barrels out of an Iraqi Republican Guard warehouse in 2003. The building, one soldier said, was littered with dead birds.
As the soldiers pushed the barrels over and began rolling them, some of the contents leaked, they said, filling the air with a bitter, penetrating smell. Soon, many were dizzy and suffering from running noses and eyes. A few were vomiting, disoriented, tingling or numb.
After the soldiers staggered outside for air, multiple detection tests indicated the presence of nerve agent. Others suggested blister agent, too. The results seemed to confirm the victims’ fear that they had stumbled upon unused stocks of Iraq’s chemical weapons.
From Camp Taji, where the barrels had been found, more than 20 exposed troops were evacuated in helicopters to a military hospital in Balad, where they were met by soldiers wearing gas masks and ordered to undress before being allowed inside for medical care.
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“They drew a box in the sand and had armed guards and were like: ‘Do not get out of that box. Do not get out of that box,’ ” said Nathan Willie, a private first class at the time. “I was kind of freaked out.”
Since last fall, the United States military has acknowledged that U.S. soldiers found thousands of abandoned chemical weapons in Iraq, and that hundreds of troops notified the military medical system that they believed they had been exposed to them. The military acknowledged the exposures after years of secrecy — and of denying medical tracking and official recognition to victims — only after an investigation by The New York Times.
Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, which advocates open government, said the government’s refusal to share its information was a case of the habits of secrecy trumping common sense.
“Soldiers exposed to something really dangerous cannot find out what it was because ‘Sorry it’s classified’?” he said. “It’s creepy and it’s crazy.”
“The outrage here,” he added, “is extraordinary.”
Nonetheless, the efforts to ferret out the truth, the victims said, repeatedly met with official indifference, stalled public-records requests and medical care providers who turned them away — belying the Army’s slogan that its soldiers come first.
“We were expendable at all costs,” said Kareem Sinclair, who was a specialist in 2003 but is now out of the Army. “It was just fallen by the wayside, kind of like the Vietnam vets with Agent Orange.”
Sinclair, who complains of headaches and short-term memory loss, said he also wondered whether a cancer of his diagnosed in 2004 was related to the contents of the barrels.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon adopted guidelines for screening hundreds of veterans who were exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq.
Among those to be offered medical examinations are roughly two dozen soldiers from the 811th Ordnance Company and others who worked with or treated them after their exposure in 2003, according to Brad R. Carson, an acting undersecretary of defense, who led the Pentagon’s review of chemical casualties.
And last week, after repeated requests by The Times, the Army declassified a two-page document that appears to answer the veterans’ first question: What was in the barrels?
The document, a site survey report written after liquid samples were tested by the Iraq Survey Group, the task force organized by the Pentagon and the CIA to examine Iraq’s special weapons programs, identified the contents as benzenamine 3,4 dimethyl, an organic compound with multiple industrial uses.
In boldface letters, the report called the compound “a carcinogen and poisonous chemical.”
Chemists and chemical-warfare specialists interviewed said the chemical was part of a family of organic compounds used in a binary rocket fuel for Eastern bloc missiles and rockets, including variants of the Scud.
The fuel, sometimes called TG-02 or Tonka fuel, is known to cause acute exposure symptoms that partly mirror those for nerve agents, including intense headaches, confusion, weakness, depression of the central nervous system and death.
When asked why the Army had not shared its information for more than a decade, Carson said he was at a loss, beyond the fact that the Iraq Survey Group was not in the Army’s chain of command, which may have limited the information flow.
“All I can do is level with them now,” Carson said of the veterans.
One of them, former Sgt. 1st Class Dennis Marcello, had been fighting for the records since 2009, when he first filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents related to the soldiers’ exposure. He expressed gratitude at the belated release, but also anger and a sense of vindication after having been what he called “slow-rolled” for years.
But the Army has still not released many other records he sought, or provided answers to his lingering questions, including what ultimately happened to the barrels.
The Iraq Survey Group did not extract liquid samples from the barrels until August 2003, roughly three months after the soldiers were exposed. Later, Marcello said, he returned to the warehouse to check on the barrels. They were gone.
“Where did those barrels finally go?” he asked. “Who took them? How were they disposed of? You ask yourself these questions, year after year, and you wonder: Why is all of this some kind of secret operation?”