Official Action on the Deadly Dangers in the Gulf

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When thousands of Gulf War veterans fell ill - The Sunday Times: Focus: December 15 1996

When thousands of Gulf war veterans fell ill, the Ministry of Defence responded with callous complacency. James Adams and Hugh McManners reveal a catalogue of errors behind last week's admission that servicemen were exposed to poisons after all Nicholas Soames is the most genial and jovial of ministers. But in rare moments of anger, his face takes on a deep purplish hue that should disconcert his doctor and certainly frightens his audience. The sight has become all too familiar in recent months to his senior officials on the sixth floor of the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Vice-Admiral Tony Revell, the surgeon-general, and David Reynolds, the ministry's head of medical finance, were in particularly apprehensive mood when they were ushered into Soames's spacious office overlooking the Thames in Whitehall on September 26.

The MoD was under growing pressure from reports that up to 3,000 veterans and some of their wives and children have fallen prey to a variety of unexplained illnesses collectively known as Gulf war syndrome. As the officials were ushered towards red leather chairs around a conference table, Soames was clearly furious.

I'm sick of asking questions and getting either the wrong answer or more questions, he told them, banging his fist on the table.I want the truth.

Soames's frustration was compounded by embarrassment. He had repeatedly denied that servicemen were exposed on a wide scale to potent organophosphate pesticides, which doctors had said might explain many of the symptoms reported.

But on the day before the meeting, the minister was informed in a memorandum from his officials that insecticides containing these chemicals had been used extensively in the British camps after all. It meant he had misled the House of Com mons. The mistake, for which Soames apologised to the Commons on October 4 and again last week, was one of a catalogue of errors that has concealed the hazards faced by servicemen in the Gulf and delayed a full investigation of their ill health.

So slow has the ministry been to respond that the truth demanded by Soames remains far from clear, even after his statement last week, in which he announced a study of thousands of veterans and an inquiry into reports of infertility and birth defects in their families. Five years after the first symptoms emerged, the veterans still do not know whether they were exposed to chemical or biological weapons, whether they have been damaged by pesticides or whether a series of jabs, some of them unlicensed in the UK, could have caused long-term problems.

THE horror stories began within days of the first troops' arrival home from the Gulf. Corporal Terry Walker, a driver and storeman with the Royal Ordnance Corps, said he had suffered what he believed were the after-effects of injections and pills to protect him from biological and chemical attack.

My joints were hurting and I became very tired, he said. While in the Gulf, he was living in a fog of pesticide which was sprayed four or five times a day over his tented camp. Walker, from Nottingham, is now on an 80% pension after leaving the army with headaches, rashes, swollen joints and stomach cramps. His daughter Kirsty, 2, has similar digestive problems and skin rashes.

The fate of Flynn White was worse. White, from Lymington, Hampshire, had joined the Royal Logistic Corps as a private but had gone to Sandhurst and won a commission just in time to be posted to the Gulf. He was based in a dressing station just behind the front line and soon began to complain of exhaustion, diarrhoea and dizziness.

Last September White died aged 31 from a brain tumour, convinced that it had been triggered during his service in the Gulf. One of 26 British veterans who have perished, he left a wife and three-year-old son.

To Walker, White and more than 30,000 other veterans on both sides of the Atlantic who fell ill, the explanation was Gulf war syndrome. So far, however, neither the Pentagon nor the MoD acknowledge that this exists.

Some doctors agree, saying the range of illnesses may have a variety of possible causes, ranging from nerve gas to pesticides. But the MoD's years of denial that there was any exposure to these dangers ensured that, until recently, its response was confined to an inconclusive programme to assess individuals rather than the wider patterns of illness it has now agreed to study.

The Sunday Times has compiled evidence to show that such exposure should have been clear to the MoD long ago.

THE ministry has consistently rejected veterans' claims that they came into contact with harmful chemicals. But Major Michael Johnson, commander of the American army's 54th Chemical Troop, said last week that on August 7 and 8, 1991, months after the war ended, he was on a joint chemical detection mission with the 21st Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron of the Royal Engineers.

The British conducted 17 tests on a substance they found in a suspicious container outside a school in Kuwait and the Americans did four similar tests. We confirmed the presence of a blister agent commonly referred to as mustard gas, traces of phosgene, a non-persistent choking agent, and traces of phosgene oxime, a non-persistent blistering agent, said Johnson.

A drop of liquid fell onto the wrist of one of the British soldiers trying to take a sample from the container and Johnson watched as the man's wrist immediately began to blister. The soldier was decontaminated and transported to a hospital for medical treatment, said Johnson.

Ministry sources believe a further 12 British troops were contaminated by chemical weapons. Some clue as to the reason for the MoD's dismissal of claims about such exposure may lie in the designation of events in the Gulf as a conflict rather than a war, a technical distinction that left the ministry open to compensation claims that would not otherwise have been possible.

But the dangerous mixture of chemicals to which servicemen were exposed has been known to the MoD since March 1991, when Major S F Drysdale, of the 1st Armoured Brigade's medical branch, had prepared a paper entitled Op Granby Post Op Report & Preventative Medicine Individuals unnecessarily received at least one dose of cholera vaccine, wrote Drysdale. The initial medical reconnaissance report correctly concluded that malaria was not a threat. MoD chose to ignore this advice. Packaging of insecticides proved to be inadequate with many drums leaking and some insecticides were found to be ineffective.

This report was widely circulated within the MoD. On June 15, 1995, Hilary Meredith, a solicitor whose firm represents more than 1,000 veterans and their families, obtained a copy and wrote to the prime minister.

It took two more letters before the MoD responded and then it was to threaten her with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act for having a classified document.

A similar attitude was evident this autumn, when the ministry ordered a team of investigators to look into the extent to which organophosphate pesticides had been used among British troops during the Gulf war.

On November 14, the team told a staff sergeant who had been using the pesticide to hand over his private diary of the conflict. The team's report claims solicitors holding veterans' diaries are in possession of classified documents, adding:

It may be that they constitute MoD property.

Last week Soames told the Commons that an examination of 921 veterans reporting sick had produced no evidence of a new pattern of illness. The veterans say inquiries to date have been hampered by the loss of medical records relating to 14,000 of them.

This weekend David Clark, Labour's defence spokesman, claimed to have evidence suggesting that while the MoD argued publicly that there was no case to answer for compensation, it may have accepted the opposite in private.

His allegation is based on an anonymous telephone call he received in November last year from a man who said he had taken the wrong briefcase from a restaurant by mistake. He read out a letter purporting to have been written by Michael Portillo, the defence secretary, to the prime minister.

According to Clark, the letter warned that the veterans' claims would lead to large compensation payments. He believes the document was genuine because after he reported the conversation, he was interviewed by the head of MoD internal security, who apparently treated it as such. Clark will table a parliamentary question about the matter tomorrow.

Although Soames has now ordered research into the health of the veterans to begin shortly, Britain lags far behind the Americans, who have not only been conducting their own work but have offered to fund work in this country, too.

In January this year Dr Simon Wessley, of King's College hospital, London, was given $1m by the Pentagon to carry out such a study. Yet almost one year later, the work has yet to begin because the MoD has been unable to provide Wessley with a list of the men and women who served in the Gulf.

Even when the list is finally delivered early next year, it will be a further 12 months before the study is completed seven years after the end of the conflict. The research announced by Soames will take three years.

Soames told The Sunday Times that any suggestion of a cover-up was nonsense . I have put the whole lot in the public domain, he said.

But further disclosures about the ministry's handling of the affair seem certain to increase pressure for some help to be given to sick veterans before the studies are complete. Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, a vice-chairman of Tory backbenchers and former defence minister, is pressing for a distress fund to be set up without any admission of liability.

Just as his grandfather, Winston Churchill, used to galvanise his staff by writing 'Action this Day' on important orders, so Soames has taken to carrying around the corridors of the House of Commons a buff folder marked 'Action'. That is what the Gulf veterans and their growing band of supporters want now.

Additional reporting: Michael Prescott and Stephen Grey.

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