American and American-trained Iraqi soldiers faced incredible danger during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In the midsts of daily suicide bombings and insurgent attacks, no one expected a decades old threat against the troops.
Today, a new investigation by the New York Times revealed that soldiers repeatedly encountered chemical weapons that had been left over from Saddam Hussein’s rule. At least six people were wounded by these chemicals. Heavily censored intelligence documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that American troops secretly found about 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs.
The Pentagon was aware of these weapons but deemed them a low priority in the months following the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, this information was withheld from intelligence investigations such as the Iraq Study Group in 2004 and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2006.
The decision to hide this information has had serious consequences for many of the troops who came into contact with these chemical weapons. A former army sergeant who sustained burns from mustard in 2007 and was denied medical evacuation and treatment despite requests from his commander. “I felt more like a guinea pig than a wounded soldier,” he said.
That same year, Specialist Richard T. Beasley of the 756th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company accidentally came into contact with the mustard agent after picking up the shell of an artillery bomb. Beasley sustained extreme blisters and burns but was denied a Purple Heart because his wounds had not been sustained “in enemy action.”
In the course of the investigation, the Army admitted that it had not followed its own guidelines on treating troops who had been exposed to chemical weapons. They did, however, promise to identify and follow up with soldiers who had been exposed.
“We’re at the point of wanting to make this right,” Col. Bill Rice, director of Occupational and Environmental Medicine of the Army Public Health Command said last Friday. “We can’t change the past, but we can make sure they are pointed in the right direction from this point forward.”
These chemical weapons still pose a major security threat to the Iraqi people. Most of these chemical weapons were found near the Muthanna State Establishment northwest of Baghdad, which served as a major production center for weapons in the 1980’s. The complex has been held by the Islamic State, or ISIS, since last June.
It is suspected that there are an additional 2,500 chemical rockets in or near the facility.