Pentagon finally admits over 600 Americans exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq

A bombshell New York Times investigation revealed in mid-October that hundreds of American soldiers were exposed to chemical weapons while serving in Iraq. Worse than that, the experiences of these soldiers was covered up by Defense officials during the Bush and Obama eras. Today, the Pentagon is finally acknowledging that American servicemen and women did suffer exposure to chemical agents while serving in Iraq.

“American troops were exposed to chemical weapons multiple times in the years following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, while the Pentagon kept their discoveries of the expired or degraded weapons secret from investigators, fellow soldiers, and military doctors, according to a published report,” The Times reported in October.

The New York Times reported late Tuesday that American troops reported finding approximately 5,000 chemical warheads, shells, or aviation bombs in the years following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. On at least six occasions, soldiers were wounded by those weapons, which had been manufactured before 1991. In all, the paper reported that 17 U.S. soldiers and seven Iraqi police officers were exposed to chemical agents during the war. The U.S. government said its number was slightly higher, but did not release a specific figure.

This stellar reporting finally generated some acknowledgment from the Pentagon. On Friday, the Department of Defense conceded that, since 2003, more than 600 American soldiers have been exposed to chemical warfare agents in Iraq.

“Having not acted for years on that data, the Pentagon says it will now expand outreach to veterans,” The Times reported. “One first step, officials said, includes a toll-free national telephone hotline [1-800-497-6261] for service members and veterans to report potential exposures and seek medical evaluation or care.”

This report suggests that Defense Sec. Chuck Hagel’s “prodding” of officials to reexamine post-deployment debriefing reports yielded a trove of information about the soldiers who believed they had been exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq.

Unsurprisingly, those veterans who did suffer the effects of exposure are not impressed by the Pentagon’s belated honesty.

“It’s too little, too late,” said one veteran who was exposed while destroying Saddam Hussein-era chemical artillery shells in 2008. “No one ever believed me. They were like, ‘Oh, that never happened.’”

Another soldier told The Times on the condition of anonymity that he was issued a “gag order” which legally forbade him from discussing the chemical artillery he uncovered in Iraq.

Beyond the tragedy of soldiers being exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq is the absolute insult of allowing these service personnel to return home to a country where many though believed they were making their experiences up. Some, like The Daily Beast’s Eli Like, have alleged in their reporting that the decision to not acknowledge soldiers’ exposures to pre-1991 chemical weapons was a political determination made inside the Bush White House.

Some of Lake’s sources suggest that the Bush administration was simply not interested in re-litigating the WMD issue by 2006. According to The Daily Beast, some in the administration found the reappearance of WMD so vindicating that they wanted the former president to deliver a press conference next to recovered chemical warheads while wearing a protective suit. That theatrical idea was nixed not only because of the threat to Bush’s safety, but because the White House had apparently determined that the WMD argument had already been lost.

There are too many outstanding questions about this incident to not demand a thorough investigation. Upon the conclusion of an independent inquiry, a formal apology is due to these soldiers who suffered horrible injuries which their country could not acknowledge.