American troops found nearly 5,000 abandoned chemical weapons in Iraq from 2004 to 2011, but their discoveries were kept secret by the U.S. government, the New York Times reports.
According to the 10,000-word, eight-part interactive report ("The Secret Casualties of Iraq's Abandoned Chemical Weapons") by C.J. Chivers published on the paper's website late Tuesday, at least 17 American service members and seven Iraqi police officers were exposed to nerve or mustard agents in Iraq after 2003.
On at least six occasions, American troops and American-trained Iraqi troops were wounded by the abandoned munitions, but news of the encounters was neither shared publicly nor widely circulated among the troops, the victims told the Times. Others said they were told to be vague or deceptive about what they found.
"'Nothing of significance’ is what I was ordered to say,” Jarrod Lampier, a retired Army major, said of the 2006 discovery of 2,400 nerve-agent rockets at a former Republican Guard compound, the largest chemical weapons discovery of the war.
Among the reasons for the secrecy? "The discoveries of these chemical weapons did not support the government’s invasion rationale," Chivers writes. "After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, [President George W.] Bush insisted that [Iraqi leader Saddam] Hussein was hiding an active weapons of mass destruction program, in defiance of international will and at the world’s risk. United Nations inspectors said they could not find evidence for these claims."
The discovery of pre-Gulf War chemical weapons — most of them "filthy, rusty or corroded" — did not fit the narrative.
“They needed something to say that after Sept. 11 Saddam used chemical rounds,” Lampier said. “And all of this was from the pre-1991 era.”
“I love it when I hear, ‘Oh there weren’t any chemical weapons in Iraq,’” Jarrod L. Taylor, a former Army sergeant, told the paper. “There were plenty.”
The troops began encountering the munitions in hidden caches and roadside bombs.
The paper recounted a harrowing 2004 discovery in Baghdad by two explosives-disposal technicians in detail. Staff Sgt. James F. Burns and Pfc. Michael S. Yandell were transporting what they thought was the remains of a makeshift bomb back to the base when they began experiencing symptoms of sarin gas exposure:
Sergeant Burns noticed a bitter smell and thought, he said later, that “it was rotten vegetables.”
Then he felt the onset of a headache. He told Private Yandell, who was driving, that he did not feel right.
Nauseated and disoriented, Private Yandell had quietly been struggling to drive. His vision was blurring. His head pounded. “I feel like crap, too,” he replied.
Dread passed over Sergeant Burns. Maybe, he wondered aloud, they had picked up a nerve agent shell.
The chemical shell Sergeant Burns and Pfc. Michael S. Yandell found that day was on the highway to Baghdad’s international airport, called "Death Street" at the time because of frequent insurgent attacks.
Neither man remembers the drive’s last minutes. At the base entrance, they did not clear the ammunition from their rifles and pistols — forgetting habits and rules.
As they arrived at their building, Sergeant Burns was sure. In the back of the truck, the shell had leaked liquid. Illumination rounds, he knew, do not do that.
“They put a gag order on all of us — the security detail, us, the clinic, everyone,” Burns said. “We were briefed to tell family members that we were exposed to ‘industrial chemicals,’ because our case was classified top secret.”
The paper also reported that as a result of the secrecy, military doctors were not prepared to treat the soldiers exposed to chemicals, preventing troops "from receiving proper medical care and official recognition of their wounds."
Rear Adm. John Kirby, spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, declined to address specific incidents detailed in the Times investigation but said that the military’s health care system and awards practices were under review.
“The secretary believes all service members deserve the best medical and administrative support possible,” Kirby said. “He is, of course, concerned by any indication or allegation they have not received such support. His expectation is that leaders at all levels will strive to correct errors made, when and where they are made.”
The news of abandoned chemical weapons in Iraq comes as a U.S.-led coalition continues drone strikes on Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. While there is no evidence of munitions falling into the hands of the terror group, the possibility is nonetheless "worrisome," Chivers writes.