WASHINGTON -- Two military chemical weapons specialists told Congress yesterday that their units made confirmed detections of nerve agents in the vicinity of U.S. troops in Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, but that their superiors never followed up on their reports.
Testifying before a House subcommittee, Army Maj. Michael F. Johnson and Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. George J. Grass said they took pains to verify the detections and to ensure they were reported up the chain of command.
However, toth men said that the detections were ignored at the time, and that no one from the Pentagon hierarchy ever questioned them about what they had discovered, even though they disclosed the incidents publicly before a presidential advisory panel last year.
Their stories appeared likely to add to doubts about the Pentagon's insistence that all such detections by U.S. chemical teams either could not be confirmed or were later proven inaccurate.
Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, the subcommittee chairman, said the incidents bolstered suspicion by lawmakers that top military officials -- and the Pentagon's civilian leaders -- simply were not aggressive enough in pursuing the mystery of Persian Gulf war illness.
"You are all voices in the wilderness that nobody is listening to," he said.
Many of the gulf war veterans suffering from illnesses that they believe they acquired during the 1991 war contend that their illnesses stem from exposure to toxic chemicals in Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.
Although the Pentagon has begun investigating those allegations more fully, top Defense Department officials have insisted for years that they knew of no such exposures. They have said that virtually all such detections by chemical warfare teams have proven to be false.
Yesterday, however, Johnson and Grass insisted that they had taken steps to verify the detections and told lawmakers that they heard of dozens of other instances in which U.S. chemical specialists found firm evidence that toxic agents were present.
Johnson headed a special chemical weapons team that joined forces with a British unit in investigating a tankful of mustard agent at a girls' school in Kuwait City in August 1991, while Grass said his unit found a nerve agent in a freshly cleared minefield in the area.
Both headed teams that were operating "Fox" vehicles -- specially equipped trucks designed to sample the soil and run it through a spectrometer to detect possible chemical contamination.
They said the incidents involved both traces of toxic agents and lethal concentrations.
Pub Date: 12/11/96