The Veterans Clinic Map Project

Almost a year ago Professor Angela Drake asked me if I’d deliver the keynote address at the next Veterans Clinic Symposium.  I was beyond surprised.  I never thought of myself as a keynote speaker kind of guy.  I have always viewed myself as a sort of problem solver guy.

But, when Professor Drakes asks you to do something to help your fellow veterans she has a purpose and a plan.  She laid out her belief that this mapping stuff that I do might have a practical application in helping veterans make stronger disability claims, and if they lost their claim, it might help them present a stronger appeal to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington D.C. , or lead to some needed rule-making by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

I have come to learn that there are two types of VA claims.  There are the presumption claims and there are proximity (my word) claims. A presumption claim is where if you are presenting certain medical symptoms and you were in a certain place at a certain time, then the VA makes the presumption that your medical condition is related to your service.  Some of the Viet Nam veterans who were in country and who have certain symptoms or diseases are presumed to have a service connected disability.  Others, like my Uncle Patrick who was just off-shore of Viet Nam, have the same diseases but do not get the benefit of the presumption.  The burden to prove their service caused their disease is on them.

An example of a proximity claim might be a PTSD claim by a servicemember who was deployed but not necessarily in combat but nonetheless saw some pretty horrific things. These veterans must prove their “stressor” = the thing that led to PTSD with “corroborating evidence.”  Combat veterans, generally speaking, don’t have to corroborate stressors, but combat means being “engaged in combat with the enemy” which itself is ill defined. The facts of the case control, and facts are based on time and place. By proving time and place, veterans can improve their chance of prevailing at the VA.

The genius of Professor Drake’s idea was to present the modern mapping tools I use daily to those attorneys practicing Veterans Law. Mapping tools can be used to prove time and place. We hope to show them that there is a readily available supply of geographic information out there  that when it is presented within a modern computer mapping context, that data can help bolster a veteran’s claim, or help supplement their appeal the VA’s denial of their claim.

My first step was to figure out where and how the federal government stores combat related geospatial data.  That is a task worthy of a lifetime and a team of researchers.  But, it is out there.  I found my own units logs from Desert Storm.  They record the fact that the 47th Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit rendered safe, removed, or destroyed at least 1,135,566 items of military ordnance from Jan 2, 1991 through May 16, 1991.

The 47th EOD’s NCO’s Suite – Desert Storm – Circa Jan-Feb, 1991

The 47th EOD deployed with 13 soldiers and in combat operated with three 3-man EOD teams and a four man headquarters element.  Before, during and after Desert Storm we were exposed to more than our share of hazards: some environmental and some were just the nature of the job.  The complete list of hazards is well-documented, but let’s briefly review the Gulf War Environmental Hazards:

For my case study I chose Khamisiyah demolition operation.  Here is the Wikipedia entry for the event.

The Khamisiyah Demolitions
“The Khamisiya Ammunition Storage Facility was a site approximately 25 square kilometers in area and consisted of two sections: one of 88 warehouses; the other of 100 hardened concrete bunkers surrounded by an earth berm and security fencing. The storage complex was in use by 1982.
In March 1991, combat engineers and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams of the U.S. Army, conducted a demolition operation. The entire storage complex, containing massive quantities of munitions, was set to be destroyed. On 4 March, all explosive charges were detonated, and witnesses stated that the resultant explosion yielded an impressive mushroom cloud. It has not been confirmed how this explosion affected Iraqi civilians in the area, if at all.
It was not known at the time, but destruction of ordnance at Khamisiya is thought to have consequently released nerve agents such as sarin and cyclosarin into the atmosphere. Computer-generated models based on atmospheric conditions project that clouds of nerve agents would have drifted south and reached allied troops. Records also show that Nuclear, Biological, Chemical (NBC) sensors monitoring the air soon reported traces of nerve agents. These NBC detection units were military units of several allied countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, and Poland.”

Shortly after the first demolition operations were begun a site called the “Pit” was destroyed on the afternoon of March 10, 1991.  This operation has been the focus of much study since. There have been two studied released by the US Central Intelligence Agency.

One study was released in 1997 and another in 2000.  The 1997 report is at https://www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/gulfwar/555/425055597.html

A revised report was conducted in 2000. https://www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/gulfwar/cwagents/index.htm  Both of these study’s purported to plot the downwind hazard areas and correlate those areas with the general positions of the troop deployed in the area of operation. However, despite my efforts I have yet to find the source data the CIA used to plot unit locations.  I believe that to obtain that information I may have to make a Freedom of Information Request.

But, this project was never about solving everyone’s location on day one.  This was meant to be a demonstration project.  It was meant to introduce what we believe can be a cost-effective tool to support our veterans as they fight the after effects of their service.

By using my GIS I was able to map my unit’s log entries, convert map graphics from the CIA’s reports, and include other official source material.  Using the CIA’s reports I was able to map the 1997 and 2000 plume models. The process works. Despite getting a letter from the VA years ago telling me I was not in the downwind hazard area of the Pit demolition, I was able to use unit logs showing the location of our EOD teams and these locations are within the plumes.  This kind of mapping helps attack a central, yet unspoken assumption, found in both of the CIA’s reports. The reports assume all the troops in a given unit were located where the headquarters of that unit was reported.  EOD units, like a lot of other military units, had soldiers traveling and working all over the area.  My experience an EOD tech was that after the invasion was over I got up every day (except on Sundays) an my team drove somewhere and blew something up the Iraqis had paid a lot of money to purchase. Sometimes it was huge piles of their explosives. I got paid to blow up things that could hurt other people. My life has rarely been that rewarding and had that sense of purpose since. But I digress.

1997 Khamisiyah Plume Model

If you look at the map at http://maps.geovelo.org/geovelo/maps you can see how this old information was mapped using Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  As far as I know, this is the only publicly available web map on the Khamisiyah incident.  But this is also just a first step.  If I am allowed to dream a little, I’d like to see this project grow.  To support our veterans, we need to map the following (Please forgive me if I miss something important):

  • AGENT ORANGE: We need to map the exact areas and times where agent orange was applied, and the locations of the units affected.
  • DESERT STORM: We need to map unit locations and we need to really examine the existing plume models for accuracy. And as new things are declassified we need to incorporate them into the maps.
  • GWOT COMBAT: We need to map areas where service members were engaged in combat during the Global War on Terror. Fortunately, there is an amazing amount of information on this topic in formats that are map friendly.

Then, we need to place this information into an easy to use web map format where veterans, veterans service organizations and other advocates, and veterans law attorneys can easily access the information and generate the kind of convincing supplements necessary to support the veteran’s claim.

If you are interested in learning more, please come to the symposium.  You can learn more by clicking on the image up top or here.

If you have any insights, unit information, or thoughts please email me at Chris.Dunn@GeoVelo.org

Thank you,

Chris Dunn