Chemical Exposure In Iraq Has Affected More Than 600 American Soldiers, Pentagon Admits

Less than a month after the publication of a groundbreaking New York Times piece detailing the "secret casualties of Iraq's abandoned chemical weapons," the Pentagon has revealed that more than 600 American servicemen were exposed to chemical weapons. As the Times reports, this sudden admittance has shed new light upon a decade-long question about the extent to which American soldiers came into contact with chemical agents in Iraq. These latest revelations may completely reconfigure the way conversation surrounding the costs of these weapons will unfold, especially considering its larger-than-anticipated scale.

The Times' phenomenal piece of investigative journalism, first published in October, shed light on a shocking number of encounters with chemical warfare agents, including sarin or sulfur mustard agent. According to the Times, servicemen found a total of "5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs." While these were not the weapons of mass destruction then President George W. Bush had ordered military men and women to find, they were indeed remnants of an earlier arsenal of chemical weapons that, as per the Times, were "built in close collaboration with the West." In the original article, the Times reported that "17 American service members and seven Iraqi police officers who were exposed to nerve or mustard agents after 2003," new figures from the Pentagon are more than 30 times greater initial estimates.

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Officials have now admitted that the Department of Defense Pentagon "did not offer sufficient tracking and treatment to those who may have been hurt by the chemical exposure," and are now faced with an astonishing backlog of servicemen who were injured as a result of this contact. In fact, a staggering 629 soldiers noted on their post-deployment health assessments that they may have come into contact with "chemical, biological and radiological warfare." These numbers do not account for the hundreds of Iraqi civilians, soldiers and other foreigners who were also likely harmed by these materials.

The Pentagon is attempting to provide affected veterans with the appropriate care and attention. For some, this is an action that comes 11 years too late. The first step, the Times says, will be a "toll-free national telephone hotline for service members and veterans to report potential exposures and seek medical evaluation or care." But Jordan Zoeller, who served in the Army when his platoon was exposed to sulfur mustard agent in 2008, told the Times, "It’s too little, too late." No matter what Zoeller told doctors and officials about his health problems, including asthma and psoriasis, "No one ever believed [him].'" He told the Times, “They were like, ‘Oh, that never happened,′" and the Army completely dismissed claims that he'd even been exposed to chemical agents.

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Others seem to echo his sentiments, and have horror stories to tell about their own experiences with obtaining treatment for their chemical injuries. One Army sergeant remarked to the Times in October, "I felt more like a guinea pig than a wounded soldier.” Despite his mustard burns, he was refused treatment at a hospital as well as a medical evaluation in the United States, even though his commander specifically made requests on his behalf. Worse yet, Army officials were ordered to remain silent on the issue, or at the very least, downplay its severity. Jarrod Lampier, who recently retired from the Army after taking part in the discovery of 2,400 nerve-agent rockets in 2006, told the Times that he was ordered to say that he found "nothing of significance" during congressional testimony.

Others who were exposed to chemical agents recount being issued "gag orders" that prevented them from recounting their discovery of the weapons, much less associated injuries. In light of these disturbing revelations, Paul Reickhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told the Times that the American people needed "total transparency and absolute candor" regarding an issue that has been, for so long, completely swept under the rug. It is, as of yet, unclear as to why such lengths were taken to disguise the presence of these weapons. And it is also still unclear how many individuals, Americans and beyond, were affected by the chemicals.

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Commander Ryan Perry, a Navy spokesman, mentioned to the Times that "any previous order of silence was unacceptable," and said, “We in no way condone the silencing of any of our service members,” and further noted that he was in full support of granting proper medical attention to those affected. The degree to which servicemen were exposed certainly varies, and it is difficult to tell who of the 629 who reported exposure are highest at risk for longterm health problems. Another issue is that the type of chemical agent involved also heavily impacts the sorts of effects it will have, and without any real way of knowing who came into contact with what, healthcare and military officials have their work cut out for them in terms of how best to proceed.

Regardless, however, this "stunning oversight" is one that must be addressed, and seems to be only the surface in a much deeper and insidious trend of a governmental silencing game.

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