WASHINGTON — The under secretary of the Army on Wednesday apologized for the military’s treatment of American service members exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq, and he announced new steps to provide medical support to those with lingering health effects and to recognize veterans who had been denied awards.
Under Secretary Brad R. Carson acknowledged that the military had not followed its own policies for caring for troops exposed to old and abandoned chemical munitions that had been scattered around Iraq, and he vowed improvement.
He also said that the Army had reversed a previous decision and approved a Purple Heart medal for a soldier burned by sulfur mustard agent, and that he expected more medals to be issued to other veterans after further review.
“To me, the scandal is that we had protocols in place and the medical community knew what they were, and yet we failed in some cases to implement this across the theater,” he said. “That was a mistake, and I apologize for that. I apologize for past actions and am going to fix it going forward.”
Mr. Carson was appointed last fall by Chuck Hagel, then the defense secretary, to lead a Pentagon working group to identify service members who had been exposed to chemical weapons and to offer them medical screening and other support. The effort was in response to an investigation in The New York Times that revealed that the military had secretly recovered thousands of old and often discarded chemical munitions in Iraq.
The report found that insurgents had used some of the weapons in roadside bombs, that most of the episodes had never been publicly acknowledged and that many troops who had been wounded by the blister or nerve agents had received substandard medical care and had been denied military awards.
Mr. Carson said the working group’s new instructions, which were distributed to the military services in recent days, would ensure that hundreds of veterans identified by the services, or who had called a hotline set up at Mr. Hagel’s order, would be screened and properly treated. The steps, Mr. Carson said, would also cover troops exposed to chlorine, which insurgents repeatedly used as a makeshift chemical weapon.
“My ambition, and what I am committed to, is to make sure that any person who was exposed to a weaponized chemical or a chemical weapon is addressed through this process,” he said.
Under the guidelines, veterans identified as possibly having suffered exposure to a chemical weapon will be contacted by their military service, evaluated in a structured interview and in some cases invited for a full medical examination.
The veterans will be provided with documentation of their exposure and have their medical records updated; this information, Mr. Carson said, will also be shared with the Department of Veterans Affairs to help veterans receive follow-up care or submit claims.