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Army Seeks to Identify Troops, Veterans Exposed to Chemical Weapons

1st Sgt. John R. Cruz supervises the placement of explosives at an ordnance disposal range outside Camp Ramadi, Iraq, Sept. 24. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Nancy Lugo)
1st Sgt. John R. Cruz supervises the placement of explosives at an ordnance disposal range outside Camp Ramadi, Iraq, Sept. 24. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Nancy Lugo)

The Army is reaching out to specific units that service officials believe could have been exposed to chemical warfare agents as the Army tries to ensure troops across all four services receive the right medical support – in some cases, years after the exposure might have occurred.

Soldiers who served in Iraq with the Army's 702nd, 756th or 710th Explosive Ordnance Disposal companies, or with "Bushmaster Company," 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, will likely hear from the Army in its search for soldiers who may have been exposed to chemical warfare agents.

Those units are identified in guidance issued March 20 by Under Secretary Brad Carson where he details the Army's plan to locate active-duty members and veterans of all branches who may need medical support and, in some cases, receive the Purple Heart.

The four goals of the Army's review are to "identify, contact and evaluate service members and veterans" who might have been exposed; offer a medical exam to those individuals; document the results in the "individual service treatment records and pass to the Department of Veterans Affairs; and "consider appropriate recognition for [those] with injuries," Carson states.

EOD units are identified specifically because these units were called on to destroy the deteriorating chemical weapons caches the military found after 2003 and more likely to be exposed to the agents. According to the Times the deteriorating chemical weapons pre-dated the 1991 Persian Gulf War and were not part of an active program.

While Carson identifies Army units, the search is much broader, looking for current and veteran soldiers at risk as well as service members and veterans of the sister services, as well. The Army has been designated the lead agency in the review, but each service will handle the process for its own members and veterans.

The review now underway also includes scouring media reports in which troops and veterans claimed they were exposed to chemical agents. It has also set up a hotline for service members and veterans to self-report, at 800-497-6261.

The Army will collect data weekly from the services.

Past exposures unreported, ignored by Army

The search is prompted by a New York Times report last October that American troops were exposed to chemical agents and even sarin gas during the war. The Army almost immediately began reviewing health surveys filled out by troops returning from the combat theater, and in November, the Army identified some 629 soldiers who may have been exposed.

Army Lt. Col. Juanita Chang, a spokeswoman for Carson, said Thursday the Army has not come up with any service member or veteran exposed to a chemical agent in Iraq who has experienced any long term effects.

Carson's review guidance was dated five days before he apologized for the Army not following its own policies in caring for soldiers exposed to chemical agents during the war.

About 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs were found by U.S. troops during the course of the Iraq War, the Times reported.

To manage the search, service members and veterans will be defined and tracked as four groups, or cohorts

  • Cohort 1, he said, is made up of men and women identified in media reports as having possibly been exposed.
  • Cohort 2 will be other troops and veterans who served in the same units as those of the first group, and at the same time. The four units identified above have also been included in this group.
  • Cohort 3 will be those identified as having potentially been exposed to chemical agents based on a review of Army and Defense Department reports. These would include health and operational incident reports, post-deployment health assessment and health reassessment reports and operational reports specifically regarding chemical warfare agent exposures during the war.
  • Cohort 4 will include members and veterans who self-report through the Army hotline.

Any claims by service members or veterans that they had been placed under a "gag order" to not talk about chemical exposures outside official channels will be reported to the Under Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, Carson said in the guidance.

The New York Times reported in October of troops being told to keep silent about exposures. One commander recalled medical personnel who he said tried disprove that health issues with some of his soldiers were related to chemical agents. The Army denies it tried to hide the fact troops were exposed to chemical agents.

Purple Hearts possible, not guaranteed

Medical exams will be offered to all service members from the first group – those who made their claims in the media – and be offered to individuals in the other cohorts if a military doctor recommends following a review of medical records and an interview.

The reviews and interviews will be conducted by doctors from the individual's service. An exam, if warranted, will be conducted at Walter Reed National Medical Military Center in Maryland, Chang said. Veterans will be given temporary orders enabling them to get the exam at Walter Reed, she said.

Veterans found to need care following the exams will be referred to the Veterans Affairs Department.

All information from record reviews, doctor interviews and exams will be included in the medical records of the service members and veterans, she said. That way, even a service member or veteran showing no ill effects of chemical exposure now will have it on their record. In the event a health problem arises in the future, the chemical exposure could be linked to it.

Some service members and veterans found to have been exposed to chemical agents as a result of combat will be eligible for the Purple Heart, according to Carson. For that reason, medical record reviews, reports and information reported by the member or veteran during the interview and exam will be made available for service-specific Purple Heart reviews.

All determined to have injuries resulting from likely or confirmed chemical agent exposure will be contacted by their service and provided information on requirements for the Purple Heart as well as submission packet. The specific service would also assist in locating former unit members and leaders for witness statements, unit reports and other official records.

But exposure to a chemical agent is no guarantee of being awarded a Purple Heart. The injury would have to be a result of an enemy action. A chemical agent released as part of an IED attack would be one example, according to the Army.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com

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