By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Pentagon press officers insist that this isn't an issue since troops sent to the Gulf are now being issued a new and improved JSLIST (Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology) suit. "Everybody's getting two JSLISTs," says Army spokesman Captain Benjamin Kuykendall. "We've got 1.4 million on hand, enough for two suits for each troop — they last 45 days — and we're cranking out 90,000 more a month."
But in October, the General Accounting Office said these weren't enough and that the old suits they were to replace were already expiring. In any case, Pentagon policy is that each soldier is supposed to have four suits, not two, and — to repeat — the suits last less than a day under concentrated attack, not 45. Congressional investigators estimate 3 million JSLIST suits will be needed in the Gulf.
Also, given past supply problems, the notion that all those new suits are actually getting to soldiers in the Gulf seems dubious at best. Investigators reported that inventory records at units they visited varied from automated systems to scrawls on eraser boards to none at all. As recently as 2000, they found that there was no Defense DepartmentÂwide system of keeping track of the production of JSLIST suits or whether units get the right sizes (critical in chem-bio warfare) or even where they're being sent. "It's what we don't know that worries me," says Congresswoman Janice Schakowsky (D-Ill.). "Inventory is so unreliable some units have few suits, and others are selling their extras on eBay."
Suits aren't the only problem. In an October report, the General Accounting Office found that one Marine unit had only 31 percent of the needed detectors and one Air Force unit only 50 percent. But that's certainly better than the Army's 90 percent defective rate. And what does the Army suggest troops do if a unit has been under CBW attack and has no detectors to let soldiers know when they can take off their protective gear? Here's what one Army handbook says: "One soldier is selected to hold a deep breath, break the seals of his mask, and keep his eyes wide open for 15 seconds. He then clears his mask, reseals it and waits for 10 minutes. If symptoms do not appear after 10 minutes, the same soldier breaks his seal, takes two or three breaths and clears and reseals his mask. After 10 minutes, if symptoms have not appeared, all soldiers can safely unmask once permission is granted from higher headquarters."
If you think that's bizarre, listen to Kuykendall when asked about the 62 percent of the gas masks Army investigators say don't work: "Soldiers are real inventive," he says. "They find a little tear in the mask from, you know, sitting on it, banging it around, strapped to their belts, they can be a little inventive and whip out the duct tape."
A soldier may be lucky and get a working kit, but he or she may not be taught how to use it. Desert Storm vets remember the suit shortages and lack of training only too well. Mike Woods, who's paralyzed in one leg, racked by headaches, blackouts, seizures, heart problems and numbness in his feet and hands — a full panoply of symptoms of Gulf War syndrome — was issued one protective suit in 1991. "The detectors were going on and off, on and off. I pulled that suit on and off, on and off so many times it was torn and cracked, and nobody told me that meant it wouldn't work." Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center (NGWRC), says that "Never in 20 years in the military did I ever train for more than eight hours in a mask and protective suit. And many guys, especially reservists, only practice putting the mask on and off — not living and fighting in it."
Three months ago Defense Department inspectors told the Shays subcommittee that because local commanders are given field control, "Some units had limited training or did not train at all. . . . With the exception of masks, soldiers couldn't effectively operate basic chemical-defense equipment." Thirty-four percent of soldiers didn't know how to use the most basic, handheld CBW M-8 detector.
"Commanders hate CBW training," says Shays. "It brings a war game to a standstill, dealing with the suits and masks and how hard it is to move in them, and especially if you try to really simulate decontaminating your whole AO [area of operations]."
Even the chemical specialists who are supposed to have the expertise to tell soldiers what to do in a CBW attack — from determining with advanced detectors what kind of toxin is being used to what kind of protective gear to put on and for how long — are themselves poorly trained, according to a 2002 Army audit. "Chemical specialists didn't have the skills to implement effective chemical defense programs in their units." And "Soldiers responsible for operating equipment with radioactive materials [including the M-8 detector] weren't trained in radiation safety," the audit also found.
When L.A. Weeklyasked officials at the Army's National Training Center in the Mojave what chemical-biological warfare training there was, NTS press officers sounded mystified. "Well, they put on their masks and suits on one day and practice decontaminating an area. But, you know, even before Desert Storm we knew the Russians had CBW, so the training now isn't anything new."