Military accused of ignoring law that protects troops' health
March 24, 2003
Some war veterans — joined by members of Congress — are accusing the military of skirting legal measures designed to protect troops from chemical and biological weapons and the inoculations designed to fight them.
Congress will convene hearings Tuesday to determine whether the Defense Department is obeying a 1997 law demanding that it medically screen troops and take blood samples before and after deployments.
Advocates say the tests are important because comparing results shows whether troops were exposed to hazardous agents.
The Pentagon has said it complies with the law. Some veterans organizations disagree. Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate from Massachusetts, is also skeptical. This month Kerry asked the General Accounting Office to investigate.
“These reports are troubling,” Kerry wrote in his request.
“The nutshell is that there’s significant concerns raised by not only Congress, but by the Army’s own internal audits about preparedness, equipment deficiencies and whether public law designed to protect soldiers is actually being implemented,” said Steve Robinson, a retired Army Ranger and executive director of The National Gulf War Resource Center. “It isn’t being done.”
Air Force Maj. Sandy Troeber, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said the military does screen troops, and that records are entered into a medical surveillance system for future reference.
“When you deploy overseas, they are constantly monitoring the environment,” Troeber added.
The American Legion is fighting to make sure that’s the case. It also wants to make sure the military keeps accurate records about what shots or other preventative treatments it gives to troops. With some 30 percent of Persian Gulf War veterans complaining of mysterious illnesses, some advocates believe the military’s own inoculations may be a culprit.
“People were given anthrax, PB tablets — pyridostigmine bromide — given a lot of stuff like that, and it wasn’t written down,” said Steve Smithson, the American Legion’s specialist for Gulf War issues. “Or, if it was written down, a lot of the records were destroyed.”
Without exams and records, Smithson warns that veterans won’t get proper treatment if they get sick after the war is over.
The Pentagon has admitted that about 130,000 troops were exposed to low levels of sarin, a deadly nerve agent, after they destroyed a weapons depot at Khamisiyah in southern Iraq in 1991. For years, the Pentagon denied any exposure. Now it says Khamisiyah was the only such incident it can document.
For veterans’ advocates, the worries surpass mere statistics. Both Smithson and Robinson are Gulf War vets. They have worn their nation’s uniform, and they have friends who still do so.
“I worry not just for myself, but for my friends that are there now,” Robinson said. They “may be about to make some of the same mistakes in 1991 that could have been prevented.”