By Suzanne Gamboa
Monday, March 4, 2002; Page A17
Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi has ordered further study of death rates among Gulf War soldiers who may have been exposed to deadly gases from an Iraqi chemical weapons depot.
The Pentagon has said about 100,000 soldiers were exposed when the Khamisiyah chemical weapons facility was blown up by U.S. combat engineers. Military officials have steadfastly said the level was not hazardous, but have revised which soldiers they said were exposed.
After a new analysis of the vapor cloud, 34,000 soldiers the Pentagon initially said were exposed were removed from the exposure list.
The VA recently released a compilation of death rates and benefits claims that indicated those soldiers on the initial list are dying at a rate nearly 10 times as great as the soldiers the Pentagon now maintains were exposed to gases at Khamisiyah.
"On the surface, it's troubling and I'm concerned," Principi said last week after a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "We don't know what the cause is, so we need to do some immediate follow-on research, and I've ordered that that be done."
The analysis did not differentiate how the veterans died -- some could have been killed in accidents or died of natural causes or of service-related illnesses -- or whether any deaths were attributable to exposure to nerve gases.
Principi said he is working with William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, to confirm the deaths and determine what caused them.
"This information came to me, obviously, as a surprise, and I just feel that we need to look further at the information," Principi said.
The Iraqi weapons depot was destroyed in March 1991. It was discovered only later that the depot and a nearby pit contained hundreds of weapons filled with lethal sarin, cyclosarin and mustard gases.
The Pentagon created a computer model of the vapor cloud in 1997 and sent letters to service members who, the model showed, might have been exposed.
Three years later, the Pentagon revised the computer model using new weather data and troop information. The new model showed a different track for the vapor cloud, and some different troop exposures.
In other veterans issues, Principi told the VFW crowd that the VA set a record in deciding claims last month, completing 62,536 compared with 29,036 in January 2001.
Principi said the $1.57 billion increase President Bush has proposed for the VA is the largest the agency has received but that he is not sure it will be enough to care for all veterans who request care.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
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