Persian Gulf War commander H. Norman Schwarzkopf emotionally defended his officers from suggestions they knowingly allowed U.S. forces to be exposed to chemical weapons but acknowledged that he, too, was mystified by the illnesses that have struck veterans of the conflict.
"There is obviously something there," the retired Army general told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee yesterday, appealing to the government to care for the people who served under him during the 1991 conflict. "And something is making them sick and, by golly, we need to treat them and return them to normal lives."
But Schwarzkopf conceded he could add little to the debate over what may have made the veterans ill. He doubted it was "exclusively" the result of exposure to chemical weapons and suggested that stress, oil fires, bombing Iraqi weapons caches and even pet collars used by some troops to ward off "creepy, crawly things" found in the desert might have played a role in causing the illnesses.
In the same gruff, blunt style that he demonstrated during war briefings, Schwarzkopf acknowledged he was "scared to death" of the possibility Iraq would kill thousands of U.S. troops with chemical weapons. He spoke of "a very difficult moral dilemma" his commanders faced when they decided to destroy Iraq's "very large stockpile of chemical weapons." They needed to demolish the weapons without endangering the lives of thousands of Iraqi civilians or allied troops, he said.
Schwarzkopf strongly defended his field commanders from allegations they were careless about chemical and biological weapons. Such allegations are "at worst a blatant lie, which strikes at the heart of our armed forces since it undermines the confidence of the mothers and fathers of America who place the well-being of their sons and daughters in our hands," he said.
Not one of the 541,000 military personnel who served in the gulf theater showed "any symptom" of chemical exposure during the war, Schwarzkopf said. The general said, however, that he was stunned when he learned for the first time last year that U.S. troops may have been exposed to chemicals as they were withdrawing from Iraq and destroyed a large cache of Iraqi bombs discovered at a remote desert depot.
The general quickly rejected suggestions from Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) that U.S. commanders knew where the Iraqis had hidden large stocks of chemical weapons. "You know, if we had known they were there, senator, we would have hit them long before we did," he said.
Finding where the Iraqi chemical weapons were and destroying them was one of Schwarzkopf's top priorities. "I would have loved to be able to bring out a bunch of chemical rounds and say to the American people and the rest of the world, `Look what these folks have and look what they were prepared to use against us,' " he told Rockefeller.
The general said his personal logs from the war, which the Pentagon is turning over to the committee, supported his conclusions. The panel, which has been highly critical of the way the Defense Department has handled the issue, did not dispute Schwarzkopf but several senators said they were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to examine all his logs and attachments.
Bernard Rostker, the assistant Navy secretary who has been placed in charge of the Pentagon's response to Gulf War illnesses, attempted to assure the committee that defense officials were moving to resolve questions about what made the veterans ill. He noted he had removed an article from the Pentagon's "Gulflink" Internet Web site that discounted low levels of chemical exposure as a possible cause of the ailments. Rostker said he removed the article because the Pentagon has ordered additional research into the issue.
Virtually every senator who spoke at the session promised to be sympathetic toward expanding the eligibility of Gulf War veterans for compensation and medical care. Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), a former chairman of the panel, offered the only note of caution, urging colleagues to balance the emotion of the subject against scientific research into what may have caused the illnesses.
@CAPTION: Retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf told panel: "Something is making them sick and . . . we need to treat them and return them to normal life."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company