Human Rights Leadership Profile

“Veterans Were Right on All Counts”

      In March 1996, after hearing veterans describe to him what they had encountered, Congressman Christopher Shays, chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight’s Subcommittee on Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations, began investigating the matter. According to the congressman, “Many veterans were telling us the federal response to their plight was blind and passive. They found the research unfocused, their diagnoses skewed toward stress, and their treatments inconsistent or ineffective. It became clear to us very quickly, our veterans were right on all counts.”

      A few months later, shortly before hearings planned by Shays in June 1996, the Pentagon announced that some 400 American soldiers were “presumed exposed” to chemical warfare agents after the Khamisiyah Ammunition Storage Depot in Iraq had been destroyed. As reported by columnist Jack Anderson, Defense Department officials may have released the information because they were worried that the information would leak out in advance of Congressman Shays’ hearings.

      The Pentagon’s admission came after five years of denials that American servicemen had been exposed to any sort of chemical or biological weapons. The numbers rose rapidly each month until by October 1996, the Pentagon stated that 20,800 were “presumed exposed” to the chemical weapons stored at Khamisayah. While a breakthrough of sorts, the Khamisiyah incident included only the soldiers in the vicinity of that one Iraqi depot when it was blown up by U.S. Army engineers and failed to account for the vast majority of sufferers who were nowhere near that site. Nor did exposure to chemical weapons explain the many reports that veterans’ adverse symptoms were being passed on to spouses and other family members and even household pets.

      Congressman Shays’ investigation continued, with frequent hearings held to spotlight the problem and to unearth new information. Among other things, the hearings explored the health effects of chemical weapons; mycoplasma, a type of contagious, harmful microorganism to which many veterans were reportedly exposed; vaccines and pills administered to troops; depleted uranium, a toxic substance used by American forces in bullets and artillery shells to pierce armor — as well as other elements in the toxic stew that comprised the Persian Gulf environment.


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