Vietnam Stories: Air Force vet recalls protests, chemical weapons

Vietnam Stories: Air Force vet recalls protests, chemical weapons

By DOUG ROKKE

After our 1967 high school graduation, some of my classmates enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign while I enlisted in the USAF. By March 1970, I had spent a year in direct support of combat operations.

Classmates and USAF buddies had been killed in action. Others had been wounded. My task as a Bomb Nav Hard Hat was to maintain, repair and operate the B52's ASQ-48 bombing system during and between bombing missions. I did not support UIUC anti-war protests staged by friends because I was actively at war. During the March 1970 riots, Illinois Army National Guard troops were deployed to quell the riots and protect property.

During the late 1970s, I decided not to re-enlist despite a specific invitation. Therefore, I applied for admission and was accepted to Western Illinois University to study physics, mathematics and law enforcement administration starting on Sept. 11, 1971. I chose WIU because it was "safe" because there were few anti-war protests in Macomb. I could not know that in 1977, I would be hired by UIUC and, by 1987, would earn a master's degree and be working on my Ph.D. I sure could not predict that I would be an Army Reserve officer and nuclear, biological, chemical warfare, explosives (NBC-E) expert and a member of the joint UIUC police department — Army super operations response team under command of UIUC Police Chief Paul Dollins. Consequently, I met and talked to the soldiers and police officers who quelled the riots by spraying the rioters, then were ordered to bury leftover chemical weapons munitions out on East Main in Urbana despite recommendations to return the munitions to Chanute AFB.

On Oct. 15, 1987, telephone repairmen — while installing telephone lines behind the Army Reserve Center and next to the Champaign County nursing home — dug up four containers containing 60 gallons of chemical weapons liquid. Consequently, our interagency team consisting of myself and others from UIUC, Urbana and Champaign police and fire departments, Mercy Hospital and the Army were tasked to secure the munitions. We completed decontamination and organized medical care. We found out that the chemical warfare munitions were issued by the USAF at Chanute AFB. We identified the munitions as a super CS liquid that when sprayed on the rioters caused immediate intense skin and eye pain, thus dispersing the rioters.

We completed our assigned tasks. Later on, a Army Granite City Arsenal EOD team removed the remaining 60 gallons for disposal. At least one container was leaking and we suspect — based on previous and current conversations with those who used, then buried, the chemical warfare munitions — that more containers might still be buried out on the site today. Also, deterioration byproducts of the original super CS may still contaminate the area. These may still pose a health and environmental hazard to anyone who might encounter them.

Our UIUC team went on to clean up more regional NBC-E/hazardous materials problems; form the nucleus of the 3rd U.S. Army Medical Command's Bauer's Raiders during Desert Storm to train military personnel; train and man the 1996 Atlanta Olympics NBC-E response force; train the members of New York City Police- Fire Department Emergency services unit who were killed or injured in the WTC on Sept 11, 2001; train hundreds of police, fire and medical personnel across the nation; and prepare emergency response procedures for the Department of Defense and NATO.

Today, while some members of our team are dead and most are ill, we still are demanding full Army, Air Force, and Department of Veterans affairs accountability for medical care and environmental remediation that remains elusive. CS has lingering adverse health effects that may have affected anyone who was gassed in 1970. It sure has affected my own eyes and my own lungs. The Vietnam War caused millions of unjustifiable deaths and injuries in Nam and on campus, but thank God most Nam vets and also protestors went on to make our nation and the world a better place.

Doug Rokke, Ph.D., is a Vietnam and Desert Storm veteran.

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