* During the Iraq war, at least 17 American
service members and seven Iraqi police officers
were exposed to aging chemical weapons abandoned
* These weapons were not part of an active
arsenal. They were remnants from Iraq's arms
program in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war.
* Many troops who were exposed received
inadequate care. None of the veterans were
enrolled in long-term health monitoring.
* Munitions are unaccounted for in areas of Iraq
now under control of ISIS.
* In response to this investigation, the
Pentagon acknowledged that
more than 600 troops reported chemical exposure,
but it failed to recognize the scope or offer
Participants and victims of this secret chapter
of the Iraq war discuss exposure to chemical
The soldiers at the blast crater sensed
something was wrong.
It was August 2008 near Taji, Iraq. They had
just exploded a stack of old Iraqi artillery
shells buried beside a murky lake. The blast,
part of an effort to destroy munitions that
could be used in makeshift bombs, uncovered more
Two technicians assigned to
dispose of munitions stepped into the hole. Lake
water seeped in. One of them, Specialist Andrew
T. Goldman, noticed a pungent odor, something,
he said, he had never smelled before.
He lifted a shell. Oily
paste oozed from a crack. “That doesn’t look
like pond water,” said his team leader, Staff
Sgt. Eric J. Duling.
The specialist swabbed the
shell with chemical detection paper. It turned
red — indicating sulfur mustard, the chemical
warfare agent designed to burn a victim’s
airway, skin and eyes.
All three men recall an
awkward pause. Then Sergeant Duling gave an
order: “Get the hell out.”
Five years after President
George W. Bush sent troops into Iraq, these
soldiers had entered an expansive but largely
secret chapter of America’s long and bitter
involvement in Iraq.
From 2004 to 2011, American
and American-trained Iraqi troops repeatedly
encountered, and on at least six occasions were
chemical weapons remaining from years
earlier in Saddam Hussein’s rule.
In all, American troops secretly reported
finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells
or aviation bombs, according to interviews with
dozens of participants, Iraqi and American
officials, and heavily
redacted intelligence documents obtained
under the Freedom of Information Act.
The United States had gone to war declaring it
must destroy an active weapons of mass
destruction program. Instead, American troops
gradually found and ultimately suffered from the
remnants of long-abandoned programs, built in
close collaboration with the West.
The New York Times found 17
American service members and seven Iraqi police
officers who were exposed to nerve or mustard
agents after 2003. American officials said that
the actual tally of exposed troops was slightly
higher, but that the government’s official count
The secrecy fit a pattern.
Since the outset of the war, the scale of the
United States’ encounters with chemical weapons
in Iraq was neither publicly shared nor widely
circulated within the military. These encounters
carry worrisome implications now that the
Islamic State, a Qaeda splinter group, controls
much of the territory where the weapons were
The American government
withheld word about its discoveries even from
troops it sent into harm’s way and from military
doctors. The government’s secrecy, victims and
participants said, prevented troops in some of
the war’s most dangerous jobs from receiving
proper medical care and official recognition of
“I felt more like a guinea
pig than a wounded soldier,” said a former Army
sergeant who suffered mustard burns in 2007 and
was denied hospital treatment and medical
evacuation to the United States despite requests
from his commander.
Congress, too, was only
partly informed, while troops and officers were
instructed to be silent or give deceptive
accounts of what they had found. “ 'Nothing of
significance’ is what I was ordered to say,”
said Jarrod Lampier, a recently retired Army
major who was present for the largest chemical
weapons discovery of the war: more than 2,400
nerve-agent rockets unearthed in 2006 at a
former Republican Guard compound.
Jarrod L. Taylor, a former
Army sergeant on hand for the destruction of
mustard shells that burned two soldiers in his
infantry company, joked of “wounds that never
happened” from “that stuff that didn’t exist.”
The public, he said, was misled for a decade. “I
love it when I hear, ‘Oh there weren’t any
chemical weapons in Iraq,’ ” he said. “There
Chemical Weapons Found by American Forces in
Between 2004 and 2011, American forces in Iraq
encountered thousands of
chemical munitions. In several cases, troops
were exposed to chemical agents.
DETAILED IN THIS ARTICLE
1MAY 2004Two soldiers
exposed to sarin from a shell near Baghdad’s
2SUMMER 2006Over 2,400
nerve-agent rockets found at this former
Republican Guard compound.
3JULY 2008Six Marines
exposed to mustard agent from an artillery shell
at an abandoned bunker.
4AUGUST 2008Five American
soldiers exposed to mustard agent while
destroying a weapons cache.
EARLY 2011Hundreds of mustard
rounds discovered in a container at this Iraqi
Rear Adm. John Kirby,
spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel,
declined to address specific incidents detailed
in the Times investigation, or to discuss the
medical care and denial of medals for troops who
were exposed. But he said that the military’s
health care system and awards practices were
under review, and that Mr. Hagel expected the
services to address any shortcomings.
“The secretary believes all service members
deserve the best medical and administrative
support possible,” he said. “He is, of course,
concerned by any indication or allegation they
have not received such support. His expectation
is that leaders at all levels will strive to
correct errors made, when and where they are
The discoveries of these
chemical weapons did not support the
government’s invasion rationale.
After the terrorist attacks
of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Bush insisted that Mr.
Hussein was hiding an active weapons of mass
destruction program, in defiance of
international will and at the world’s risk.
United Nations inspectors said they could not
find evidence for these claims.
Then, during the long
occupation, American troops began encountering
old chemical munitions in hidden caches and
roadside bombs. Typically 155-millimeter
artillery shells or 122-millimeter rockets, they
were remnants of an arms program Iraq had rushed
into production in the 1980s during the
All had been manufactured
before 1991, participants said. Filthy, rusty or
corroded, a large fraction of them could not be
readily identified as chemical weapons at all.
Some were empty, though many of them still
contained potent mustard agent or residual sarin.
Most could not have been used as designed, and
when they ruptured dispersed the chemical agents
over a limited area, according to those who
collected the majority of them.
In case after case,
participants said, analysis of these warheads
and shells reaffirmed intelligence failures.
First, the American government did not find what
it had been looking for at the war’s outset,
then it failed to prepare its troops and medical
corps for the aged weapons it did find.
As Iraq has been shaken anew
by violence, and past security gains have
collapsed amid Sunni-Shiite bloodletting and the
rise of the Islamic State, this long-hidden
chronicle illuminates the persistent risks of
the country’s abandoned chemical weapons.
Many chemical weapons
incidents clustered around the ruins of the
Muthanna State Establishment, the center of
Iraqi chemical agent production in the 1980s.
Since June, the compound has
been held by the Islamic State, the world’s most
radical and violent jihadist group. In a letter
sent to the United Nations this summer, the
Iraqi government said that about 2,500 corroded
chemical rockets remained on the grounds, and
that Iraqi officials had witnessed intruders
looting equipment before militants shut down the
Soldiers in chemical protection gear, including
Sgt. Eric J. Duling and Specialist Andrew T.
Goldman, examining suspected chemical munitions
at a site near Camp Taji, Iraq, on Aug. 16,
The United States government says the abandoned
weapons no longer pose a threat. But nearly a
decade of wartime experience showed that old
Iraqi chemical munitions often remained
dangerous when repurposed for local attacks in
makeshift bombs, as insurgents did starting by
Participants in the chemical
weapons discoveries said the United States
suppressed knowledge of finds for multiple
reasons, including that the government bristled
at further acknowledgment it had been wrong.
“They needed something to say that after Sept.
11 Saddam used chemical rounds,” Mr. Lampier
said. “And all of this was from the pre-1991
Others pointed to another
embarrassment. In five of six incidents in which
troops were wounded by chemical agents, the
munitions appeared to have been designed in the
United States, manufactured in Europe and filled
in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq
by Western companies.
Staff Sgt. Eric J. Duling, left, Specialist
Andrew T. Goldman, far right, and another member
of an ordnance disposal team being treated for
exposure to a chemical agent in August 2008.
said the Pentagon’s handling of many of the
recovered warheads and shells appeared to
violate the Convention on Chemical Weapons.
According to this convention, chemical weapons
must be secured, reported and destroyed in an
exacting and time-consuming fashion.
The Pentagon did not follow
the steps, but says that it adhered to the
convention’s spirit. “These suspect weapons were
recovered under circumstances in which prompt
destruction was dictated by the need to ensure
that the chemical weapons could not threaten the
Iraqi people, neighboring states, coalition
forces, or the environment,” said Jennifer Elzea,
a Pentagon spokeswoman.
The convention, she added,
“did not envisage the conditions found in Iraq.”
participants said the United States lost track
of chemical weapons that its troops found, left
large caches unsecured, and did not warn people
— Iraqis and foreign troops alike — as it
hastily exploded chemical ordnance in the open
This was the secret world
Sergeant Duling and his soldiers entered in
August 2008 as they stood above the leaking
chemical shell. The sergeant spoke into a radio,
warning everyone back.
“This is mustard agent,” he
said, announcing the beginning of a journey of
inadequate medical care and honors denied.
“We’ve all been exposed.”