Undersecretary Brad Carson acknowledged that the military had not followed its own policies for caring for troops exposed to old and abandoned chemical munitions that had been scattered around Iraq, and vowed improvement.

Share story

WASHINGTON — The undersecretary of the Army apologized Wednesday for the military’s treatment of U.S. service members exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq, and announced new steps to provide medical support to those with lingering health effects and to recognize veterans who had been denied awards.

Undersecretary Brad Carson acknowledged that the military had not followed its own policies for caring for troops exposed to old and abandoned chemical munitions that had been scattered around Iraq, and vowed improvement.

He also said the Army had reversed a previous decision and approved a Purple Heart for a soldier burned by sulfur mustard agent and expected more medals would be issued after further review.

“To me, the scandal is that we had protocols in place and the medical community knew what they were, and yet we failed in some cases to implement this across the theater,” he said. “That was a mistake, and I apologize for that. I apologize for past actions and am going to fix it going forward.”

Carson was appointed last fall by Chuck Hagel, then the defense secretary, to lead a Pentagon working group to identify service members who had been exposed to chemical weapons and offer them medical screening and other support. The effort was in response to an investigation by The New York Times that revealed that the U.S. military had secretly recovered thousands of old and often discarded chemical munitions in Iraq.

The report found that insurgents had used some of the weapons in roadside bombs, that most of the episodes had never been publicly acknowledged and that many troops who had been wounded by the blister or nerve agents had received substandard medical care and were denied military awards.

Carson said the working group’s new instructions, distributed to the military services in recent days, would ensure that hundreds of veterans identified by the services, or who have called a hotline set up at Hagel’s order, would be screened and properly treated. The steps, Carson said, would also cover troops exposed to chlorine, which insurgents repeatedly used as a makeshift chemical weapon.

“My ambition, and what I am committed to, is to make sure that any person who was exposed to a weaponized chemical or a chemical weapon is addressed through this process,” he said.

Under the now-formal guidelines, veterans identified as possibly having suffered exposure to a chemical weapon will be contacted by their military service, evaluated in a structured interview and in some cases invited for a full medical examination.

The veterans will be provided documentation of their exposure and their medical records will be updated; this information, Carson said, will also be shared with the Department of Veterans Affairs to help veterans receive follow-up care or submit claims.

The military expects to screen at least 1,500 active-duty troops or veterans, although a small fraction of that population was likely to have actually been exposed.

Carson said the Army on Tuesday had approved a Purple Heart for an explosive-ordnance disposal technician burned by sulfur mustard agent while dismantling a roadside bomb in 2007. The veteran, former Spc. Richard Beasley, had previously been denied the medal. In the incident in which Beasley was wounded, two other soldiers — including his team leader and the turret gunner in the vehicle they shared — were also burned.

There are at least two other known cases in which soldiers or sailors were wounded while handling bombs made from corroded mustard shells.