No One Left Behind: Combat Exposure to Iraqi Chemical Munitions During and After the Persian Gulf War

In the following essay, Marine Corps veteran Jeffrey Rath discusses his experiences – and exposure to Iraqi chemical weapons - as an intelligence officer during Desert Storm.  In his writing, Mr. Rath shines light on the large number of Desert Storm veterans exposed to chemical weapons and the challenges they face in receiving appropriate Department of Veterans Affairs support. 

I. The Flight

It was the evening of the 8th day of Operation Desert Storm.  The almost six months of Operation Desert Shield led to the build-up of hundreds of thousands of military forces in the combat areas strewn across the belt line of the Middle East.  Military commands stretched from the Red Sea to the warm tan, then green and finally deep blue waters of the Persian Gulf.  At that time, I was a Marine Corps major and intelligence officer serving as a Flight Manager aboard a TWA/Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) military troop transport Boeing 747-200, the workhorses delivering these troops overseas. 

The first air combat of the night began as the aircraft was violently buffeted by exploding Iraqi surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). As the Flight Manager, I had to brief the troops we carried throughout these events.  Seeking to defuse an already stressful situation, I explained away the violent movements as "clear air turbulence” - the hot desert releasing its heat energy up into the cooling night air.  No reason to get our combat newbies worked up prematurely. While on our plane, these were our Marines, and their lives were our responsibility. 

We eventually arrived at the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia with over 425 US Marines aboard, the four powerful Pratt-Whitney jet turbine engines safely delivering our transport’s cargo into this active combat zone. The flight was eventful yet manageable - standard in these combat missions. The B-747 aircraft – a flying behemoth - had "run the gauntlet" of nightly Iraqi SAMs. The moderate flak damage on the fuselage of the combat transport aircraft was clear to the practiced eye.

Upon landing, we offloaded our complement of Marine Corps infantry and flight crew to more secure areas of the airport.  A work party of Marines remained behind at the aircraft to offload the sea bags and other gear from the belly of the beastly jumbo jet. The night's flak damage added a toughness to her completely painted white aluminum flying dragon's skin. This night's run was lucky. No disastrous intake of sharp metal flak into any of the huge Pratt-Whitney turbine engines with the American Eagle emblazoned on the cowling of their engines. 

We were fortunate.  In previous combat missions, flak damage caused the giant bird's turbine engines to explode into massive orange fireballs in the black Saudi night sky.  For us, this huge Boeing aircraft proved as rugged as its B-17 Flying Fortress ancestors used during World War II.

II. Exposure

I remained with the work party of Marines to support the unloading of their gear. The waning quarter moon cast surreal shadows over the vast expanse of the airport and the desert beyond.

Out of the starlight sky, the air raid sirens suddenly began to wail.  This began the nightly Iraqi Scud missile barrage. The depleted American Patriot Missile batteries shouted forth their answers with a force that shook the heavens.  As the senior officer present, I took full command of these Marines, ordering them to the bunkers lining the air field. 

With the troops safely in the bunkers, my chief – a salty gunnery sergeant – and I charged back up the mobile stairs of the Boeing to turn off any remaining on-board lights.  With that precaution complete (a measure that reduced the plane’s target profile), we joined the other Marines in the bunkers.

In the bunkers, these Leathernecks experienced the “rockets’ red glare” overhead as the countless deadly missiles from both sides sought their targets just above their WW II-era bunkers. At the beginning of these hostilities, few junior enlisted had actual combat experience.  That had changed in a flash. These Marines would need Gunny's wisdom, experience and skills this night. Welcome to the war, my brothers.

Gunny and I remained outside the bunkers on over watch. Our task - protect the $200 million military transport. The young Marines – living up to the Corps’ combat legacy - checked and cross checked their gear, weapons and each other.  All Marines in these Persian Gulf War combat operations boarded their aircraft armed and ready for combat, as they were inserted them into active combat zones. Gunny passed out the available ammunition to our Marines.

With ammo distributed, Gunny and I huddled to discuss our plan.  If a follow-on infantry or mechanized armor push by the Iraqi forces occurred, we would take up defensive positions using the crumbling bunkers as cover and return fire as best our limited resources allowed.  These were our Marines, and Marines fight together as a unit.  Well-aimed fire would need to hold off an assault until reinforcements arrived. 

As happens in battle, a brief lull and an eerie quiet soon fell over the battlefield.  I entered the bunker and checked on our young warriors to reassure them and welcome them to war. I offered a few of my bad jokes to ease everyone's nerves.  I don't believe that our Marines minded my lack of comedic talent that hot and windless Saudi desert night.

Back outside, Gunny and I had a few relaxed moments so memorable to warriors of any stripe, war and time.  Being from a primarily US Navy family, I commented on Gunny's “pretty suit.” He wore his full USMC chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) protective gear.  I was in my summer flight uniform - tie slightly askew - and noted how warm his CBRN suit must be.

He offered a Lucky Strike which, as a non-smoker, I declined.  Demonstrating quite the talent, Gunny showed how to smoke in his CBRN protective gear. Taking his canteen tube fully out, he placed his cigarette in the end, lit the smoke and drew in his breath. Exhaling the smoke was no problem as he was wearing a chemical hood, mask and filter. 

Our idle chatter – and Gunny’s lesson – was soon disrupted.  From a far-off distance, a wimpy sounding siren echoed out.  I was unfamiliar with the siren's meaning and asked Gunny.  This tall, decked-out-for-war US Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant turned his head to ensure we could communicate directly eye-to-eye: "Sir, that siren indicates that chemical warfare agents have been detected on the field." 

My joke about Gunny’s CBRN gear no longer seemed so amusing.  The Air Force and its Mobile Air Command – responsible for the CRAF crews and Flight Managers - had forgotten to supply us with CBRN protective gear. Gunny and I calmly discussed our options.  Marines were issued two 'EpiPens' to self-inject upon presumed CBRN exposure, so we at least had plenty of those. 

With Gunny's sound wisdom, he proposed that, as I was unprotected, I should act as "the canary in a coal mine." If the CBRN agents moved our way and I went down, Gunny would use his first pen and inject himself.  He would then go into the bunker and ensure our young Marines had injected themselves correctly. Only then would Gunny return and use his second Pen on me. I concurred - seemed the best possible strategy considering the alternatives.

Plan confirmed, I had a change of heart and asked Gunny for a Lucky Strike. Standing outside the bunker on overwatch, I only made it half way through that Lucky.

III. What Just Happened?

I awoke back on the 747.  I was groggy, with one hell of a headache and a sore chest.  Slowly getting my bearings, I realized I was sitting in a middle first-class seat, with a group of USMC brass huddled in the aisle forward of my seat. To the aft were a gaggle of USAF brass. I overheard a young Marine major say to my TWA Cockpit Second Officer: "ensure that the ground crews at your base at Rome Airport properly dispose of those seat cushions,” pointing towards me, “as they are now hazmat."  It seemed like “Operation Cover Your Ass” had commenced.

I still didn’t know what had happened, but I was starting to put the pieces together.  As a California volunteer firefighter and medic, I was certified in First and Second Response for Hazardous Materials incidents. Curious, as my uniform and I were bone dry, clearly not having been run through the standard “shower & scrub” for hazmat exposures.

I was quarantined in the front of the aircraft with my TWA/CRAF Combat Cabin Crew sequestered in the aft of our aircraft.  After takeoff back towards Rome, two of my Cabin Crew came up front to check on me and fill the gaps in my memory. I trained this Crew and was proud of them and how calm and professional they remained before our Marine Corps passengers each night even in the middle of the worst air and ground combat missions, and there’s no one I’d rather have had briefing me. 

“So, what happened?”  Shortly after hearing that eerie siren in the Saudi night, I’d fallen, the victim of an Iraqi chemical weapon attack.  True to his word, Gunny injected me with an EpiPen to the thigh.  Unresponsive after this initial shot, a medic injected a second one directly into my heart.  When that also failed to resuscitate me, the medic declared me dead.  Fortunately, a second medic arrived on scene, injecting two more EpiPens – in tandem – into my heart.  That got the job done. 

IV. Back in the Fight

When we landed in Rome, I was hustled onto a TWA commercial flight back to the States.  Still in my uniform that had been contaminated by the Iraqi CBRN, I was quarantined in the back of that aircraft and away from the passengers.  The JFK-based flight attendants on the commercial flight saw I was fed and had a few adult beverages. Then, I slept until we landed in New York.

Upon arrival at JFK, I checked in with TWA/CRAF Crew Scheduling – seems they were short one CRAF Combat Flight Manager in Rome. Trained and experienced combat CRAF Flight Managers were in short supply.  Having no orders or instructions to the contrary, I volunteered to return to Rome and continue flying combat operations.  Approved – we were at war.

I had time to go to my local apartment to shower, change clothes, and grab another uniform. I returned to Rome that same night and rejoined CRAF Combat Flight operations.  In response to the chemical attack that had put me down, there was a 24-hour stand down to equip and train the CRAF Flight Crews in the correct use of CBRN protective gear.  Too little, too late for me, but it was a step in the right direction. 

I continued to fly until the end of the Persian Gulf War and beyond, quickly losing count of the number of missions our crew supported. 

V. Continued Fallout

I was not the only one with combat exposure to Iraqi chemical munitions. After the war, American and Coalition troops blew up the Iraqi facilities that produced these weapons. As an unintended consequence, the chemicals became airborne and spread across the Middle East and out over our naval ships operating in the Persian Gulf, facts documented in Senator Donald Riegle's 1994 report.

Despite this thorough documentation of exposure to chemical weapons, Marine Corps personnel records from that era remain is a restricted access status.  As a result – similar to the situation with combat exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam – those exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons during and after the Persian Gulf War have mostly been ignored, with benefits denied.

On a personal level, I lost a friend two years ago to medical conditions related to Iraqi chemical weapons exposure. He had served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (coincidentally built by my Father and his team), one of the ships in the Gulf during and after Desert Storm. 

Today, many of these forgotten warriors exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons have fought for their full Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs benefits - without success.  For decades, the DoD refused to acknowledge the CBRN exposures – and related medical complications - faced by military personnel during and after the Persian Gulf War.

In the American military we pride ourselves on the ideals of “no one left behind.”  Yet, for years, the DoD and many politicians have only paid lip service to supporting these Persian Gulf warriors.  When will American leadership and elected officials actually stand behind our men and women in uniform, veterans, and their families?  When will these warriors receive the medical benefits they deserve?  No one left behind...I think not.

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