In response to a New York Times investigation, the undersecretary of the Army apologized this week for the military’s mishandling of more than 600 service members who reportedly suffered from chemical exposure in Iraq. After being exposed to potentially lethal amounts of sulfur mustard and sarin gas, US troops often received inadequate medical treatment, gag orders, and found themselves ineligible for Purple Heart medals. Due to the fact that many of the chemical weapons were American-designed artillery shells manufactured in European countries, the Pentagon neglected to inform the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence of the proliferation of dangerous chemical munitions being uncovered in Iraq.
On May 15, 2004, then-Staff Sgt. James Burns of the 752nd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company and Pfc. Michael Yandell were exposed to sarin gas from a 152-millimeter binary sarin shell. After receiving substandard medical treatment, Sgt. Burns and Pfc. Yandell returned to the field and began suffering long-term symptoms of nerve agent exposure. Burns’ medical records from late 2004 described memory lapses, reading difficulties, problems with balance, and tingling in his legs.
“They put a gag order on all of us — the security detail, us, the clinic, everyone,” Burns recalled. “We were briefed to tell family members that we were exposed to ‘industrial chemicals,’ because our case was classified top secret.”
In July 2008, six Marines reported exposure to mustard gas from an artillery shell. On August 16, 2008, five soldiers had been exposed to mustard gas while destroying a weapons cache. The blisters on their skin were the size of their hands. In April 2010, seven Iraqi police officers became exposed to a dozen M110 mustard shells found near the Tigris River.