Gulf War vet claims proof of chemical weapon use

Sat, Apr 12, 1997 (11:59 a.m.)

A Las Vegas veteran's war mementos may prove Iraq's use of chemical weapons during the Persian Gulf War.

A small military booklet written in Arabic, an Iraqi chemical agent antidote kit, two photographs -- the first depicting what appears to be a spent chemical or biological round, the second, a chemical minefield -- appear to reinforce thousands of ill Gulf War veterans' claims of exposure.

The booklet describes the human body's reaction to chemical warfare agents. The list of reactions are the very same symptoms of some sick Gulf War veterans who suspect they were poisoned by toxic chemicals or infected with debilitating microorganisms.

The booklet was found near the body of an Iraqi soldier days after the invasion of Kuwait and Iraq by U.S. and Allied forces, said Las Vegas veteran and retired Army specialist Ken Wegner. It inadvertently was shipped back to the United States with Wegner's belongings after he was injured saving the lives of two Army medics.

The 40-year-old former nuclear, biological and chemical warfare or "NBC" expert trained the 164th Maintenance Co. on detection of and reaction to chemical and biological agents prior to its deployment to the Persian Gulf. He was an NBC noncommissioned officer for the company's 200-plus soldiers.

"Specialist Wegner, he knew his job," 164th Warrant Officer Samuel Chavez said from Phoenix. "The whole unit relied on this individual for NBC training. I thought it was too much responsibility for him, but he knew his job."

With written assurances made by the Pentagon to all Gulf War veterans, Wegner speaks openly about his recollections of war: the booklet, chemical kit and photographs, no longer a secret.

Wegner recently gave copies of the booklet to Nevada Sens. Harry Reid and Richard Bryan and the Las Vegas SUN in hopes that the congressional pressure and media attention would help him get medical aid.

He said he and his wife and youngest daughter (born Veterans Day 1992) are suffering from Gulf War-connected illnesses. The Las Vegas Veterans Administration has examined him and plan to refer him to a VA hospital in Los Angeles for further tests in hopes of discovering the source of his illnesses.

Bryan's press secretary said the senator -- a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a former member of the Armed Services Committee -- gave the booklet to the Pentagon.

In addition to the booklet and photographs, Wegner has what he believes is an Iraqi gas mask and chemical agent antidote kit. This kit -- the shape of an oversized metal Band-Aid box -- contains what Wegner believes to be drugs for the treatment of nerve agent exposure referred to in the booklet.

The war souvenirs are hard evidence in an environment filled with unsubstantiated theories for the mystery illnesses. In addition to possible exposure to chemical or biological weapons, veterans and scientists have blamed toxins from oil well fires set by Iraq, microorganisms from insect bites, exposure to depleted uranium ammunition, a toxic combination of vaccines and other shots given to U.S. and Allied troops and psychosomatic disorders.

Whatever the cause, ailing veterans' suspicions have been fueled by the Defense Department, which took years to discover, or admit, that U.S. troops were exposed to chemical weapons at a remote weapons depot called Khamisyah.

The Pentagon's continually growing estimation of the numbers possibly exposed to the chemical munitions underscores veterans' beliefs that the military is hiding something. The number was put at 400 in June and has since been revised to about 20,000.

"The government keeps saying, 'Khamisyah. Khamisyah. Nobody outside Khamisyah.' But I was nowhere near Khamisyah, so how can they explain me and people like me who are sick?" Wegner asked. "With all my training, it looks like I was exposed."

Feb. 14, 1991 -- Scuds hit Hafar Al Batin

Iraqi missiles screamed across thesky and crashed to the ground. Some of the munitions broke up in flight, creating "air bursts" that spewed their contents through the air.

Chemical alarms rang in Hafar Al Batin, a Saudi Arabian city about 14 miles north of the Army camp Log Base Echo where the 164th was stationed. Scuds hit city outskirts, creating craters in the sand. Inside the city, an auto-parts store (about one block away from Army showers) was bombed.

Iraqi snipers were targeting vehicles along MSR Dodge, which connected the base camp to the city.

Wegner was driving shotgun on this road with Spc. Paul Fuentes. They had left the 164th to get fuel for the company's generators and vehicles, but the air attack was forcing them to retrace their route with speed.

In front of them they spotted an Army ambulance careen to the side of the road, hit a 20-foot-high berm and flip. The engine raced and thick smoke escaped from beneath the hood.

Wegner yelled at Fuentes to stop the vehicle, but jumped out while it was moving about 35 mph. He ran to the ambulance and pulled out the driver and a second injured soldier, according to witness reports.

During the rescue of the two medics, Wegner injured his head. Fuentes said in his report that Wegner was bleeding from the nose and ears, and his head and leg were beginning to swell.

Although medics believed Wegner should have been their third patient, he and Fuentes returned to their vehicle and continued to retrace their route, with the ultimate goal to get fuel.

"You just don't leave your people in the middle of a war zone with no way of getting out of where they were at," Wegner said. "We didn't have any fuel for our generators or our vehicles."

This Scud attack is reported in recently declassified military records. Three documents report missiles breaking up in flight, creating "air bursts" suspected of holding chemical agents. British aircraft reported three consecutive air bursts.

A chemical detection team tested the area near two craters south of Hafar Al Batin but found no evidence of a toxic agent. The second team responded to the auto-parts store, but did not include its findings in the report.

Not until hours later did Wegner go to a front-line Army hospital, or MASH unit, where a doctor said the injuries Wegner sustained during the rescue gave him a concussion. It was recommended that Wegner be evacuated to Germany.

"I told the doctor, 'Wait a minute. There's a war going on. I'm not going nowhere,'" he said.

Wegner left the hospital and returned to the 164th with orders of seven days bed rest. In the days that followed, he said, he suffered severe headaches, daily nose bleeds and dizziness. Sometimes his ears would bleed and his vision crystalized, colors brightened.

Four or five days later -- Chemical agent detected

About 200 yards away from MSR Dodge, three to five people in full chemical gear -- gas masks and protective garments -- were sampling the air and soil when Wegner said he spotted them.

Although he was headed to King Khalid Military City where a better-equipped Army hospital would X-ray his head, Wegner stopped to assist. He said he put on his own chemical gear, attached M9 chemical detection papers and joined the others.

M9 and M8 papers were distributed to all soldiers and worn attached to clothing or equipment. The papers are sensitive to droplets of liquid chemical agents, but were known to produce false readings during the Gulf War.

Wegner's M9 papers spotted, so he opened an M256 detection kit and took a second sample. A 256 kit was the most widely available chemical detector in the U.S. military. It contained vials of liquid chemicals that when combined and exposed identify the presence of hazardous levels of chemical vapors. The test takes about 20 minutes.

Wegner's test came back positive.

"I broke open the kit and said, 'Jesus! Let's get out of here,'" Wegner said.

Wegner grabbed a sample of sand from the area. Then he and the NBC team were taken to a chemical decontamination unit where they removed their garments and decontaminated the FOX vehicle.

The Army had 60 German-made FOX systems, wheeled, armored vehicles equipped with mass spectrometers for the identification of chemical contaminants. The vehicles usually were used to confirm other readings.

During the three-hour cleanup, Wegner said one of the sergeants told him the FOX unit had registered a chemical agent and a probable biological agent. But an Army major told Wegner that the amount of chemicals detected was so small that there was no reason to panic the troops.

"It made no sense to me whatsoever ... although I have read newspaper reports that other people were told the exact same thing that I was told, 'Say nothing,'" he said.

Dismissed by the major, Wegner went to the hospital. He said he began to feel nauseous and a day or two later developed a rash that persists to this day.

"I look back at it now and say 'Hey, these are signs of chemical exposure.'"

The Pentagon is investigating 13 reports where M-256 kits and 21 reports where FOX units detected chemical agents. But the Feb. 18 or 19 incident described by Wegner is not among them.

A Pentagon spokesman said it is possible the report was overlooked because the major had determined the amounts to be harmless.

Feb. 24, 1991 -- Ground war begins

For 1 1/2 hours, Wegner and a fellow soldier and friend drove on military route MSR Sultan, covering miles of desert under the darkness of the predawn sky. It was about 5:30 a.m. when they spotted the first signs of Iraqi minefields separated by rows of spikes.

They stopped their vehicle and climbed out. It was here -- somewhere in the desert that separated Kuwait from the Saudi Arabia border -- that Wegner said he spotted the metal post with three yellow bands.

Two declassified military documents warn troops against handling munitions marked with three colors: red (nerve agents, such as tabun or sarin), green (phosgene) and yellow (blister, such as mustard gas).

As Wegner and the other soldier watched, a battalion of tanks rumbled into sight. Before he realized what was planned, an explosive charge ripped across the desert and Wegner heard a "poof!" and saw smoke.

"I heard the first alarm go off and left instantly," Wegner said. "Everybody started honking their horns, 'Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!' That means chemical attack. Then all these armored vehicles were jamming, Mach 1-million, through the sand and smoke.

"I don't think they even knew what they went through. They had blown up a chemical minefield."

A chunk of shrapnel shot though the air and landed near Wegner and his friend, who picked it up and put it in a sealed container. The two also took a sample of sand.

Often cited as proof of chemical encounter are the detections reported by the Task Force Ripper 7th Marines of the 1st Marine Division.

On Feb. 24, this tank battalion and others reported a chemical mine in Kuwait. Fox vehicles detected trace amounts of mustard gas and the unknown agent caused blistering on the exposed arms of two armored amphibious vehicle crewmen.

But an investigation of the official logs and records, followed up by personal interviews and researching medical and casualty reports, could not substantiate the Marine Corps report, according to a Pentagon official testifying May 6 before the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illness.

Wegner said neither he nor his friend felt ill or developed blisters, but now both are sick.

Unknown date in early March -- Iraqi chemical booklet

The presence of the booklet and kit on a front-line soldier indicates that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein planned to use chemical agents against Allied troops and had prepared his soldiers for entry into that kind of environment.

The booklet is 3 1/2 inches by 5 inches and has a pale green cover. On its front is an emblem with the symbols for nuclear and chemical warfare.

The inside pages are photocopies of an original and are a mix of passages from the Koran, propaganda, advice on how to use a gas mask and chemical kit, and a list of the symptoms of exposure to various agents, including nerve, blood, blister, choking, tearing and hallucinogens.

The booklet appears to have been first printed in February 1986, during the Iran-Iraq war. The discovery of the booklet and chemical kit in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War underscores that chemical arms were a staple of Iraq's arsenal.

"Brother Hero Fighter, put before your eyes the saying of our valiant leader Saddam Hussein (may God keep him in good health). The training polishes the military personality and achieves the element of unity ...," the book states.

"Brother Fighter, get to know the types and characteristics of the toxic chemical agents and the means by which they enter the body, the symptoms of exposure to the chemicals and they means by which they are conducted. ...

"Using your protective gear protects you against exposure to these injuries. In order to achieve decisive victory over the racist Iranian enemy which covets our country's wealth."

Sen. Bryan has sent the booklet to the Pentagon for translation. But he said he did not know if it was authentic or if it would shed light on Gulf War Syndrome.

"What does it prove?" he asked, pointing out that the symptoms of exposure to certain chemical and biological agents are known already.

But Wegner thinks otherwise. He looks at the picture of the rash or blister in the booklet and then at the rash on his leg and torso: They are the same, he maintains.

Symptoms that he and other veterans complain of -- rashes, digestive problems, chronic headaches -- are the very symptoms attributed to exposure to chemical agents.

March 1991, a few days later -- Possible chemical warhead

The ground war ended Feb. 28, four days after it began. Enemy troops retreated or surrendered without a fight. But chaos gripped Iraq and Kuwait and pockets of resistance continued to attack.

Evidence of these final battles littered the desert: abandoned tanks, artillery, mortar pits. Wegner and a group of U.S. and Czechoslovakian soldiers were driving through the remnants of what looked like a tank battle when they jumped out to look around.

Wegner picked up an Iraqi uniform, a knife and nuclear, biological and chemical gear. He taped the knife to his calf and hooked the gear around his waist.

Then the U.S. and Czech troops saw the intact warhead scattered among the junk.

"We used a 256 kit at that area and it came up dirty," Wegner said. "I took a dirt sample, took a picture and bailed out of there, because, in my opinion, this was an exploded chemical weapon and anything around there was hot."

Czech troops conducted their own tests, which also returned positive detection of chemical agents.

Based on an examination of Wegner's picture, a Defense Department chemical weapons expert could not determine whether the munition was a chemical or conventional round.

The weapons expert said it appeared to be 122mm munition that was either a "dud" that fired but did not explode or had not been fired. Such a munition is a common size for rockets and projectiles used by nations of the former Soviet bloc, he said.

Later in March -- Wegner disciplined, hospitalized

"Word had gotten out to the base camp that Wegner and others had gone to Kuwait to get souvenirs," Warrant Officer Chavez said. "A sergeant waited at the gate all night for their return, but they must have stashed the stuff prior to getting back because when they searched them, they found nothing."

Wegner was stripped of his noncommissioned officer duties and put on guard duty. His health deteriorated and on March 11, a supervisor discovered him in the middle of a seizure, blood dripping from his ears and nose.

"I have seen with my own eyes Spc. Wegner bleeding from the nose three times in the last week," Sgt. Kathryn Bowings wrote on March 13. "He was sent on sick call by order. This is not a soldier that is trying to go home."

Wegner was ordered back to King Kahalid Military City where a doctor ordered his evacuation to Germany. Spinal fluid was leaking from Wegner's ears, medical records said.

Wegner was hospitalized for five months and then discharged. The Army ruled him incapable of military duty.

Letters that Wegner has written to the Pentagon about these incidents and offers to turn over the samples of sand, chunk of land mine and Iraqi uniform have gone unanswered.

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