The undersecretary of the Army on Wednesday apologized 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 R. 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 that the Army had reversed a previous decision and approved a Purple Heart medal for a soldier burned by sulfur mustard agent, and that he expected more medals would be issued to other veterans 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 in The New York Times that revealed that the U.S. military had secretly recovered thousands of old and often discarded chemical munitions in Iraq.
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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 denied military awards.
Carson said the working group’s new instructions, which were 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 have their medical records 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.
In all, Carson said, 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.
The population to be screened included about 830 people who had noted on their post-deployment health forms that they believed they had been exposed, more than 540 who had called a military exposure hotline set up late last year and roughly 275 who had either been identified by the Times or served alongside them in units in the field.
Carson said medical-records reviews of those who filled out their post-deployment health forms had found few cases of likely exposure so far. The status of those who called the hotline is so far less clear.
In a sign that steps were being taken, 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.
The reversal indicated a shift in how the Pentagon views qualification for one of the military’s most respected awards. For years up until the most recent war in Iraq, the military followed a standard that a service member who had been exposed to a chemical warfare agent qualified for a Purple Heart only if the chemical had been released by an enemy.
That standard did not conceive of the insurgents’ practice in Iraq of occasionally using old chemical shells in roadside bombs – essentially traps in which the chemical agents inside might be released by an unsuspecting soldier tasked with destroying the weapon or handling its broken remains.
Carson said the four services now agree that wounds caused by such makeshift bombs would qualify for the award.
The shift means that more Purple Hearts are likely to follow.
Beasley could not be immediately reached for comment. But his former company commander, Jarrod Lampier, applauded the decision.
Lampier, who retired as a major last year, said he had been burdened by a sense of guilt and failure that he had not managed to persuade the Army to award Purple Hearts to the wounded team.
Several of the veterans exposed to sarin or mustard gas said the Army had quietly taken other treatment steps ahead of the formal issuance of the medical screening guidelines.
In recent weeks, for example, the first of the victims identified in The Times coverage had been flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington for medical examinations. One of them, former Pfc. Michael Yandell, who is now a divinity student in Texas, said he was satisfied by his treatment.
Yandell, who was sickened while handling the remains of roadside bomb made from a sarin nerve-agent shell in 2004, said he was pleased that the military was at last acknowledging the victims and developing a system for their long-term tracking and care.