FOR FIVE years, the Pentagon insisted that no troops were exposed to chemical weapons during the gulf war. Strong evidence now points to a contrary conclusion. The staff of an independent presidential commission believes that the Pentagon's prolonged failure to search for or consider relevant evidence that might undermine its early assumptions "has served to gravely undermine the credibility" of Defense Department inquiries. The staff further concluded -- correctly -- that an outside body now should take over.
This is a vital matter for thousands of military men and women who believe their current ill health can be traced to service in the Persian Gulf in 1990 and 1991. More than 30,000 out of the 700,000 who went to the gulf region during the war against Iraq have enrolled in a medical registry, and many more may have complaints. Reported symptoms -- including chronic and debilitating fatigue, skin rashes, memory loss, joint pain and more -- are frustratingly varied and so far do not point to any single syndrome, illness or cause. Some investigators believe stress may play a role. Others are not convinced that the incidence of ill health among gulf war veterans is higher than in the general population.
But unquestionably the suffering of many of these veterans is real, and the government has an obligation to pursue any lead that might shed light on their conditions. That is why the years of stonewalling -- not a coverup as much as a reluctance to investigate -- are so damaging. Until recently, the Pentagon insisted that because no soldiers reported acute nerve-gas symptoms during the war, there can have been no exposure.
But now, in part thanks to a United Nations report that was available as early as 1992, the Defense Department acknowledges that some troops may have been exposed inadvertently to nerve gas days after the war, when U.S. forces were blowing up Iraqi arsenals that they believed at the time to contain only conventional weapons. Pentagon spokesmen first admitted that a few hundred Army engineers might have been exposed to low levels of gas, then upped the number to several thousand, then to "a very large number," likely more than 15,000.
It is important to note that release of gas does not necessarily mean there was exposure, and exposure may well have caused no illness. There is no evidence that brief, low-level exposure to nerve gas, causing no immediate ill effects, leads to any chronic disability. But it also is true that little is known about the subject; more aggressive Pentagon inquiries would have led to earlier commencement of relevant research.
The Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses is likely to praise some aspects of the government's response to the baffling gulf war illnesses in its final report later this year. Already many commissions have met, and many research projects are underway. But the Pentagon's handling of the chemical-weapons issue -- including its inflexibility and its "slow, reluctant, on-again-off-again release of information" -- has "fallen short of the mark," committee staff found. Gulf war veterans now deserve an independent investigation of this matter.
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