How Four Women Destroyed 1,200 Tons of Poison Gas — and Defused a Crisis
A meenah Sawwan was up late on Aug. 21, 2013, scrolling through Facebook on her phone, when she saw the first report that a town not far from hers had been hit by a chemical attack. She watched footage from Eastern Ghouta, then saw another post that said that her hometown, Moadamiyat al-Sham, had been hit as well. She started tapping out a reply in the comments: “This is wrong. This is fake news. I’m in Moadamiyat and we were not hit by chemicals.” Then she started hearing screams.
Sawwan and her family — 12 of them were living together at the time — ran outside, but shortly after they did, mortar shells began raining down. They didn’t know where to go next. “It felt like the sky was falling,” Sawwan says.
She made her way to a nearby field hospital — a glorified basement stocked with scavenged medical supplies — stopping along the way to run her hands over her body and make sure she hadn’t been hit by shrapnel. When she got there, bodies were splayed on the asphalt outside as men with hoses sprayed them down.
Inside the hospital, she remembers, “there was barely a place to put a foot. It’s dark, full of screams, and people being washed, and the smell of vinegar.” The medical staff were shouting directives: “ ‘Take their clothes off, wash their bodies, try to do CPR.’ ” At one point, she was handed a 10-month-old baby, but she could not revive the infant. “Nobody knew what they were doing, but you have to do something.”
Sarin — the colorless, odorless nerve agent dropped that night on civilians in the suburbs of Damascus — was developed in the 1930s by German chemists as a pesticide. Exposure will trigger watery eyes, pinpoint pupils, a tightness in the chest in seconds, then paralysis, respiratory failure, and death. In 2013, the Syrian government reportedly possessed several hundred tons of the stuff, plus hundreds more tons of mustard gas and VX, another nerve agent.
The Aug. 21 assaults that killed more than 1,400 Syrians were carried out one year, nearly to the day, after President Obama’s casual declaration that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons was a “red line,” one that would change his “calculus” on America’s involvement in the country’s civil war. It was a clear threat: If Assad gassed his own people, the U.S. would respond with force — and that threat was particularly loaded, given the fact that Syria is a client state of Russia’s. To many observers, it seemed plausible that Obama’s words — and Assad’s blatant disregard for them — could drag the U.S., Russia, and both of their allies into a full-blown global conflict. But then something unexpected happened: Instead of dropping bombs on Syria, the United States cut a deal, through Russia, that would force Assad to give up his chemical-weapons stockpile. And then something even more unexpected happened: It actually worked.
The unlikely solution would ultimately involve the cooperation of 17 countries, the warp-speed work of a small cohort of U.S. Army chemists, and squabbling and infighting within the highest echelons of the U.S. government. It headed off U.S. military intervention in Syria and helped earn the Nobel Peace Prize for the intergovernmental organization under whose banner it was carried out. But before all that, the kernel of the idea — to destroy Assad’s chemical arsenal on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea — and the duty of seeing it through began with a team of anonymous young women in a dismal office, burrowed deep inside an obscure federal agency.
“There certainly were a lot of other people — hundreds of people — that had to do this,” says Gen. Jay Santee, the former deputy director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. “[But] it would not have happened without these women. At all. In any way shape or form.”
Three weeks after the attack, Chelsea Goldstein showed up to work at a joyless cubicle farm in Northern Virginia at 4 a.m. Someone had brought in doughnuts. The building was mostly empty — budget sequestration was in effect, and Department of Defense employees, like the rest of the federal workforce, were furloughed at least one day a week.
Goldstein had joined DTRA fresh out of college three years earlier, and for the past six months she had been part of a ragtag team tasked with nothing more than a complex thought experiment: How might the military go about securing and destroying a massive stockpile of chemical weapons?
Now, she stood jaw agape, doughnut in hand, as she and her co-workers watched U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, announce on TV that Syria had agreed to give up its cache of chemical weapons. The entire disarmament process was to be completed within nine months. “We had no idea that such an agreement might come to pass,” Goldstein recalls. “But we were the only team in the government working on this problem, so . . . giddyap! This is really happening.”
A front-page story in The New York Times underscored the enormity of the pact, reached during a hastily arranged diplomatic summit in Geneva. “This situation has no precedent,” a chemical-weapons expert told the paper. “They are cramming . . . six years’ worth of work into a period of several months, and they are undertaking this in an ongoing civil war.”
The deteriorating security situation wasn’t the only obstacle the team had been considering as they weighed possible options. Terrorist groups like the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State were taking root in corners of the country. And there was an additional complicating factor that, until now, Syria had denied possessing such weapons at all, so any information about the amount, condition, and location of Assad’s arsenal was based on speculative reports.
From the very beginning, it had seemed like an impossible job, which might be why some of the government’s experienced operators — men who had spent decades in and out of former Soviet republics, demilitarizing barrels of chemical and biological warfare agents — considered it a waste of their time. Instead, the core team that began working to put together a plan was composed of people who looked much like Goldstein: young women with virtually no background in chemical-weapons destruction.
In a Defense Department organization like DTRA, where men typically outnumber women roughly two to one, the gender composition of the team stood out — and earned it the nickname “Toast’s Angels,” for commanding officer Col. John Cinnamon. An Air Force pilot with the call sign Toast (“It’s funny for an aviator because that’s [what they call it] when you die,” Cinnamon deadpans), he had recently been charged with cobbling together the Syria task force. He didn’t set out to create “an all-women superteam,” Cinnamon says. He was looking for highly competent volunteers, and found women raised their hands: “There was hesitation from some folks, because the notion was we were going to fail, and we were gonna fail colossally. In general, the people willing to take that risk and see where this went were all women. The guys were more failure-averse.”
Two of the women were civilians in their mid-twenties, the other two were military officers fresh off maternity leave, and only one of the four had anything remotely resembling relevant experience. What they did have, after months of grappling with the particulars, was a firm grasp of just how difficult it would be to execute the mission the secretary of state had just committed to, even more so under the aggressive time constraints to which he’d agreed.
“There’s a good-old-boys’ club that [said], ‘These women came up with this idea — how could it work?’ ”
Fort Belvoir in suburban Virginia looks more like a mid-Atlantic college than an Army base home to dozens of Department of Defense agencies and more daily workers than the Pentagon. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency has a relatively small footprint at the base — just 2,000 employees — but it maintains a sprawling portfolio: any and all business of or relating to countering weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological, or nuclear.
DTRA has existed, in one form or another, since at least the Manhattan Project, evolving as the United States’ defense priorities have shifted: From the dawn of the Cold War until the fall of the Berlin Wall, its various precursors were charged with researching and developing new uses for nuclear technology. When the collapse of the Soviet Union left unsecured nuclear material littered across 11 time zones, the focus shifted toward containment efforts.
For example, when an earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a tsunami that flooded the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, DTRA was the agency responsible for helping to coordinate the response, cleanup, and strategy. When Libyan rebels overthrew the government, emissaries from DTRA were the ones who showed up with suitcases full of cash to hire guards to protect the country’s chemical stockpile. When a semitruck transporting any amount of chemicals is jackknifed, there’s a good chance someone at DTRA is doing a plume analysis, figuring out if the elements on board will transform into a deadly cocktail or just harmless sludge.
Julia Limage didn’t know any of this as she wound her way through a career fair inside a cavernous D.C. convention center in the summer of 2012. Limage, then in her mid-twenties, had already dropped off copies of her résumé at every environmental- and public-health-adjacent job she could find when she decided to stop by the table of an obscure federal agency she’d never heard of. A few hours later, she was ushered into a tent for an interview at the agency, conducted by a Marine pilot, a scientist, and a buttoned-up project manager. The men were vague about the role in question but they offered cryptically: “We’ve got some bio projects — a lot of it’s classified. We think you might be a good fit.”
“We were like, ‘Oh, my God. We actually have to create a chemical-weapons-destruction facility on a ship.’ ”
As a kid, Limage knew that when she grew up she wanted to be “working to save the planet. It was the Nineties — that was very in.” She was raised in Bethesda, Maryland; her mother was a lawyer for the State Department, and her father helped write portions of the Endangered Species Act before becoming a science adviser in the Clinton administration. She’d gone off to college, then completed a Ph.D. in biology at Yale before returning to D.C. for a fellowship that placed recent grads in government jobs. She ended up getting two offers from the fair, including one at the State Department, which she turned down in favor of the enigmatic gig at the agency she’d never heard of.
She showed up to work that summer at a DTRA office called “Innovative Technologies” that was responsible for finding and enlisting partners to try their hand at solving difficult military problems. Three months before the attack on Ghouta, a contractor who worked with Limage’s office drafted an anonymous challenge that was posted on a website called Innocentive. In the ad, an unnamed “Seeker” asked for solutions for “the demilitarization, destruction, or neutralization of a hypothetical stockpile of chemical warfare agents.” The stockpile was 1,500 metric tons, the size the U.S. government suspected Assad had in his possession. Anyone was welcome to submit a proposal, and the ad promised a $50,000 reward to the person able to demonstrate the kind of “orthogonal thinking that might help resolve and fill this important technology gap.”
From Limage’s position in the lowest, least-classified area of DTRA, she was aware that a team of military planners had been gaming out hypothetical responses to the Syria problem for months. “They were doing the exact same thing, but in much more detail, working with the chemists at Edgewood [Chemical Biological Center, the Army’s research and development center] on what they called ‘the smart book,’ with all the technical options,” Limage recalls.
The book included everything from conventional destruction — an incinerator or a hydrolysis machine — to “kinetic” options (bombs, essentially) and strategies to quickly render warfare agents unusable in the event of a more surgical military operation. Almost all these scenarios, though, involved either great risk or the possibility of mass casualties. “It was a logistic nightmare,” former Air Force Lt. Col. Jannell MacAulay says.
For the past several months, MacAulay had spent every day adding ideas to the list of possibilities. MacAulay had been California Miss T.E.E.N. 1992 (her talent was juggling machetes) before she grew up to fly C-130 transport planes in and out of combat zones. She was 30 weeks pregnant with her second child and had just completed training to become a military strategist when she arrived at Fort Belvoir, promptly went into preterm labor and was put on bed rest for 10 weeks.
When she returned to work in the fall of 2012, MacAulay was presented with a few options. She could either take over weapons-of-mass-destruction planning or she could lead a new team the agency was putting together on the off chance that the United States might somehow become involved in efforts to destroy Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile.
Her superior, MacAulay recalls, sold the job to her like, “This will be easy. You just had a baby; you’ll just do planning. There’s nothing going on there.” Typically a hard-charging figure, she had completed three assignments back to back, earned two master’s degrees in two years, and, after a complicated labor, MacAulay was ready to lean out for a little bit.
The need to stand up a team at all had only been recently identified, when Santee, then-deputy director of DTRA, was summoned to a meeting of the Threat Reduction Advisory Council, a brain trust made up of former government officials. The Syrian civil war came up as almost an afterthought toward the end of the meeting, according to Santee, after a long roundtable on the most-pressing threats around the world. The group was familiar with the dangers after handling the toxic remnants of Saddam Hussein’s defunct chemical-weapons program, and it harbored concerns similar mistakes might be made again in Syria.
“People really don’t understand,” Santee says. “We did have to destroy chemical weapons in Iraq, and it was rather ad hoc.” There are stories of Iraqi soldiers dumping chemicals and nerve agents into a pool as American troops advanced on their positions. The U.S. soldiers only realized something was wrong when, half a mile away from a bunker, according to Cinnamon, they all developed spontaneous nosebleeds. They were forced to return in hazmat suits and cement mixers to turn the toxic emulsion into an inert block supposedly still there to this day.
The more they discussed possible scenarios, the more Santee realized with a growing sense of dread that not only was there no plan in place, but also that if anyone was responsible for coming up with one, it was DTRA. When he tasked Cinnamon with putting together a team, MacAulay was one of the first recruits.
Already at the agency when MacAulay arrived was an Army major named Tina Schoenberger. Schoenberger was a nuclear medical science officer with the Louisiana National Guard (the person who would suit up to determine whether a mysterious white powder was or was not anthrax) before the Defense Intelligence Agency drafted her as part of the team that scoured Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction. That’s where she met her husband, a former Green Beret turned military-intelligence officer. (He says he had to get to know her when he saw Schoenberger — who’d grown up riding three-wheelers, playing hearts, and shooting beer cans on camping trips with her big Catholic, Cajun family — had better aim than half of the trained soldiers in their unit.)
Like MacAulay, Schoenberger was a new mom. She’d been getting ready to deploy to Iraq a second time, in 2011, when she learned that not only was she being transfered from the Guard to the Army, she was also pregnant. So instead of the Middle East, Schoenberger was dispatched to DTRA. “The joke was they sent pregnant women to have babies here because they didn’t know what else to do with us,” Schoenberger says.
Rounding out the core team was Goldstein. A former college debater like himself, Goldstein had what Cinnamon saw as an “intellectual fungibility” that would be useful for the task at hand. “She looks really young, so everyone kind of discounts her,” he says. After the summit in Geneva, Goldstein tapped Julia Limage to join the team.
“People didn’t think this had any chance of success. What makes this group extraordinary is we didn’t know it couldn’t be done.”
From the start, the group sensed it wasn’t being taken seriously within the organization. “The accusation I got from some of the guys was: You just got pretty women to work with you because that made your life more pleasant. Your entry requirement for being on your team was they had to be good-looking women,” Cinnamon says. “It was something that they got teased about.”
But there were other signs, too. For one thing, MacAulay says, they weren’t given a dedicated office space to operate out of, which left them shuttling between Cinnamon’s office, Santee’s, and the cubicle farm. They did not have a seat at the table in DTRA’s daily morning meetings, either. “We would stand in the back of the room,” MacAulay remembers.
The nicknames didn’t help. “I would get pissed when they would say ‘Cinnamon and his harem’ or whatever . . . I took that not as making a joke, but of being dismissive,” MacAulay says. “I just think that there was a good-old-boys’ club that [said], like, ‘These women came up with this idea — how could it work?’ ”
For her part, Goldstein saw things differently. “I never felt that we didn’t have opportunities because we were women,” she says. It was just ‘Who’s willing to put in the time? Who can bring their expertise to bear?’ ”
“They really were not the people that you would have expected to have been part of this team,” Santee says. “But in a lot of ways, the people who would have been . . . they didn’t think this really had any chance of success. Part of what makes this group extraordinary is we really didn’t know it couldn’t be done.”
There are two kinds of planning in the U.S. military: deliberate planning and crisis action. The latter is what you’d expect: “There’s a crisis right now — how do we solve it?” Deliberate planning is coming up with a million what-if scenarios. The Syria mission started as deliberate planning, or as MacAulay put it, “bullshitting, brainstorming, throw baloney on the table and see what sticks.”
For MacAulay, the lack of pressure was, at first, a relief. In the DTRA lactation room, Schoenberger helped bring her up to speed. “We’re pumping, and she’s teaching me about different aspects of chemical weapons because she was actually a chemical-weapons officer.” Quiet and private, the room became a space where they could brainstorm, free from the constant barrage of requests for information waiting at their desks, or the feeling “like we had to hide behind a facade of being an expert.”
Anything, at that point, would be better than the ideas that had already been floated, like a dumpster-size incinerator, or the use of a high-yield explosive that would detonate inside the storage facility, or burning the chemicals in an open pit. (In order to control the plume of noxious gases a fire like that would inevitably create, the firm that pitched that idea suggested creating an “air curtain” of high-pressure flames around the burn pit. It assured officials this strategy had been used effectively before, but balked when asked, “Did you try it out in a situation where if you smell the smoke 20 feet away you would die instantly?”)
The team was charged with investigating the viability of ideas like whether the weapons could be loaded onto a plane or a helicopter and flown to a country with an existing destruction facility. As pilots, MacAulay and Cinnamon dismissed the notion out of hand. Even if it weren’t for the war, no aircraft commander would agree to carry chemical weapons, stored for who knows how long in containers of questionable integrity, on their plane.
But those early brainstorming sessions did, eventually, lead to a meeting at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, where Tim Blades, the center’s director of operations, had an idea for a self-contained machine that could render the component chemicals inert, leaving only relatively harmless byproducts behind. Edgewood’s chemists, Joby Warrick writes in his book Red Line, had used the technology before “to destroy beer-keg-sized containers of leftover chemical weapons in Iraq.” The proposed device was nicknamed “the Margarita Machine,” Warwick writes, for its resemblance to the frozen-drink dispenser.
While the process of getting seed funding for such an endeavor would normally take years, in January 2013 the DTRA team wrote up an emergency request — “This was like, ‘No shit — we need this tomorrow. We need the money now,’ ” MacAulay says — and Edgewood got to work on a prototype.
The best part about Blades’ Field Deployable Hydrolysis System was that, unlike conventional chemical-weapons incinerators, it was portable. It could be sent anywhere in the world — a feature that became critical since none of the countries with conventional chemical-weapons facilities appeared open to accepting Syria’s. (Cinnamon recalls a frustrating call with a representative from France, who denied the existence of a chemical-weapons facility, while on the other end of the line, the DTRA team was staring at a public website describing the facility and its capabilities.) At one point, officials at the Pentagon were particularly bullish on the prospects of persuading the nation of Albania to accept the weapons.
From the outset, the core team was skeptical that such a deal could be reached. “I just remember sitting in Gen. Santee’s office on the couch after we had had a meeting with the Pentagon and thinking, ‘We need more options. Because what if that fails, and that fails?’ The Pentagon was putting a lot of their eggs in the Albania basket,” MacAulay remembers. “Tina said something, like, ‘What about on a ship?’ ” To three Air Force pilots, an Army major, and a civilian, the idea of destroying the weapons on the open sea may have started as a joke (“This was around the time Lonely Island’s ‘I’m on a Boat’ song came out,” Goldstein notes). But, at the same time, it didn’t seem insane.
Then August came. The team found out that a suspected chemical attack had been carried out outside Damascus. In an instant, the theoretical work they’d been doing became very real. “As military members, we would never go to the civilian population first — that’s the last line. . . . [Assad] went there first,” Cinnamon says. “That really made the whole team angry.”
In Geneva, as the team supporting Kerry was hammering out the details, it seemed like Russia had already lost interest in the endeavor. “We give them a piece of paper that says what we think the plan should be, and they just go, ‘Yeah, that looks fine to us,’ ” Cinnamon, who’d flown to Europe to aid negotiations, recalls. “They didn’t even look at it. They’re like, ‘I don’t care. You guys are going to fail. Write whatever you want.’ We kind of look at each other like, ‘Well, if we can write whatever we want, then . . . let’s just go for -everything.’ ”
Back at DTRA headquarters, MacAulay, Schoenberger, and Goldstein were working 24-hour shifts. Cinnamon would blast out emails in the middle of the night: “Can we fly Predator drones in Syrian airspace?” Or “How many months would it take to produce the hydrolysis machine?” They would track the answers down and send them back as the diplomats hammered out a framework. Schoenberger fielded questions about the feasibility of the prospect they’d joked about: Rather than bringing the Edgewood chemists’ machine into Syria or some third country, what if the demo was performed in international waters?
Privately, Schoenberger was unsure whether the idea would go anywhere. “If you ever do course-of-action development, you always have a throwaway COA that you know isn’t really going to cut the mustard,” she says.
There were a lot of reasons to dismiss the notion out of hand. A mission like this had never been attempted before. Beyond the practical challenges of outfitting a ship in time, there was, for starters, the potential for a terrorist attack or a devastating chemical spill — either contained to the vessel itself, or worse, affecting indeterminate swaths of the ocean.
But now that it was being seriously considered as a diplomatic option, it became Schoenberger and Limage’s job to run down the particulars. Schoenberger headed to Portsmouth, Virginia, where she met a salt-licked, bushy-mustached man from the Maritime Administration who was surprisingly bullish on the throwaway COA’s prospects.
“He said, ‘We can do this. We retrofit vessels in 60 days for Marines that are going out on missions. If you give us the specifications, we can do this.’ ” She can’t remember the man’s name, but Schoenberger says, “It was that conversation with that guy that convinced me.”
In order to pull it off, any ship would need not only a helicopter landing pad, but also enough space to accommodate the chemicals themselves plus two hydrolysis machines, filtration systems, an onboard laboratory, containers for the toxic byproduct that would eventually be disposed of on land, and housing for 35 crew members; beyond that, a 63-person team operating the machines and a security detail.
Schoenberger and MacAulay started working on a sketch of a white paper. “Before we knew it, we had a fleshed-out ship option,” MacAulay recalls. “But no one wanted to look at it.”
Inside the Pentagon — where suddenly, there was a flurry of interest in being involved in the plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons — consensus was building behind the idea of hauling the chemicals to Albania. “The ship option,” meanwhile, was dismissed out of hand. Santee recalls one official calling the idea “harebrained” at a meeting at the White House and another high-level meeting in which he believes his presentation was deliberately sabotaged. (“I got up to give the brief, and there were supposed to be, like, 15 slides. And after three slides, the brief was over. There were no more slides. Somebody who didn’t want me to brief the ship took them out,” Santee says.) At one point, he received a direct order to stop pursuing the idea, a command Santee declined.
To Limage, it was Albania that didn’t seem viable. One of her first jobs was to complete a comparison of the costs of destroying the weapons on a merchant vessel named the MV Cape Ray and incinerators in Albania. Among other reasons that the oceanic idea seemed more viable: no pushback from locals, fewer security concerns, and greater cost-effectiveness. “The ship seems crazier on its face, but we had much more control over it,” Limage says.
After Santee was ordered to stand down, MacAulay and the others took it as a challenge: “We printed out quite a few copies of the ship option, and we were walking around the Pentagon just throwing it on people’s desks,” including that of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where her husband worked beside desk officers for the Middle East. The move seemed to pay off soon after, when negotiations with Albania fell apart. By that time, the white paper had caught the attention of a senior DOD official who helped revive the proposal.
Limage was sitting in her gray cubicle on the fall afternoon when Goldstein and Cinnamon returned from an interagency meeting. “We’re going with the ship,” Cinnamon said. There was a feeling of triumph — they’d spent months comparing the costs, benefits, risks of each option, and they had a detailed plan ready to implement — but there was also a real sense of angst. “We were like, ‘Oh, my God. We actually have to do this now,’ ” Limage says. “ ‘We have to create a chemical-weapons-destruction facility on a ship.’ He looked kind of ill.”
Usually, the people who plan and strategize in advance of a military mission and the operators who execute it are separate teams. But because this assignment cut across so many spheres of influence, because it had to be completed on such a tight timeline, and because, by the end of it, so many people from so many different federal agencies and intergovernmental organizations wanted to be involved, the core DTRA team ended up doing the work of both the planners and the operators. “We, as the planners, just kept a hold of it the whole time,” MacAulay says.
Long before the weapons could be loaded onto the ship, they’d have to be inspected, repacked into new containers, ferried from locations scattered across the country through a war zone to the Syrian port at Latakia. On a practical level, that meant sourcing mercury-coated metal drums, forklifts, cranes, shipping containers, and armored jackets for the flatbed trucks. “We were doing that type of planning on so many things every day,” Limage says. “Things that one group of people would never be kind of managing in such detail.”
Before the chemicals could be extracted, they would have to be located and accounted for, an exercise that required the cooperation of both the Syrian government and the Russian intermediaries. In November, MacAulay was dispatched to the Hague to help coordinate what, per the Geneva agreement, would be an international joint mission executed under the banner of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) — a group that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that December — with support from the United Nations.
MacAulay’s early days in the Netherlands were spent in a room with a Syrian chemical-weapons expert and a translator, compiling a listing of Assad’s chemical weapons since the program’s inception in 1970s, while a Syrian general paced silently in the background.
“We knew they had this stuff, but we didn’t have all the particulars,” MacAulay says. What quantities of sarin and other chemical precursors existed at which sites? What was the size and status of containers they were stored in? Could they be loaded onto trucks? What MacAulay remembers most about those conversations is that the Syrian expert seemed terrified of the general looming behind him. And he wouldn’t look her in the eye.
In Syria, OPCW weapons inspectors fanned out to sites around the country, while in the Netherlands, U.S. diplomats worked to secure support for the mission from other countries. In the end, 17 nations contributed: Denmark and Norway sent ships to accept the weapons at the Syrian port. Italy offered a port where the weapons could be transferred from those ships to the U.S. merchant vessel outfitted with the hydrolysis machines. Chemical byproducts that couldn’t be destroyed aboard the vessel would be disposed of by Germany, Finland, and the United Kingdom.
Back in the U.S., Limage and Goldstein began compiling a master spreadsheet with each and every item that would be needed and writing white papers about which environmental laws were to be considered. They met with veterans groups concerned about the potential for chemical exposure and had to prepare arguments for lawyers from the Maritime Administration who believed the mission violated rules against transporting chemical weapons. (They weren’t transporting weapons, the team reasoned, the ship would be a chemical-weapons-destruction facility and there were no rules pertaining to a floating facility of that kind.)
In the meantime, there was still a considerable amount of “squabbling” going on among senior government officials. “It’s a very tight group, but with a lot of disagreements,” Limage says. Once it was decided that the destruction would, in fact, take place on a ship, the State Department wanted one outfitted with an incinerator, rather than the Edgewood chemists’ machines considered for the job.
Limage remembers the matter coming to a head at a meeting inside the State Department. The room was hot, every seat at the conference table was full, and more folks were lined up along the walls when she slipped into the conference room. “It was a disaster of a meeting,” she remembers. The State Department contractor brought in to pitch the idea was pelted with a stream of pointed questions from DOD officials — some plucked from a document prepared by Goldstein and Limage — while Army chemists had their own set of holes to poke in the proposal.
“It was a lot of people who had in-depth knowledge of the Cape Ray option, asking very hard questions to, essentially, one man from some private company who was not equipped to be answering them,” Limage says. “And there was this poor guy in the middle, trying to control the crowd.”
(That “poor guy”: the deputy assistant secretary for nonproliferation programs, a man named Simon Limage. As it turned out, Julia Limage, née Brown, did not slip into the room as discreetly as she imagined. “He claims that he was in the middle of this meeting that was going completely sideways and this beautiful young woman walks in and totally distracts him,” she says. The couple later married, and now share two young children.) If there was an upshot, though, it was that by the end of the interrogation, everyone seemed to agree that the merchant ship, the MV Cape Ray, was the best available option.
Or nearly everyone. In December, an Office of Naval Intelligence report that issued further warnings against the idea began circulating in the highest echelons of government. “Their basic premise was ‘Landing an airplane on land is hard enough. Landing on a ship is 10 times harder. Everything on the ocean is harder, and you haven’t factored that in. This is never going to work, and you’re all going to die,’ ” Santee says.
By that point, contractors had been dispatched to Portsmouth, where they were working to retrofit the 648-foot Cape Ray with pumps, hoses, 2,200-gallon titanium barrels, containers to hold the neutralizing agents and the toxic byproduct, hazmat suits, and other accouterments required for the mission. There was only a matter of weeks in which to do it all before the ship would embark for the Mediterranean.
For three frigid weeks after Christmas 2013, Limage stayed at a dingy Hampton Inn near the shipyard in Virginia, acting as conduit between policymakers in D.C. and contractors rushing to meet their deadlines. The sudden appearance of a perky young lady peppering them with questions perplexed the contractors, chemists, and security personnel. Some “were definitely confused by my existence. I remember the military guys being like, ‘Who’s this little girl on the ship?’ They didn’t know what to make of me.”
She remembers walking into the shipyard that first day, dwarfed by stacks of shipping containers and the pallets she’d requisitioned. “I’d been thinking about shipping containers and forklifts and trucks all day, but it was very much a paperwork drill for me,” she says, “All of a sudden: This is what we’re talking about. I really understood.”
At the same time, pitfalls the team hadn’t anticipated were becoming real, too. There was a polar vortex that year, and as the temperatures dropped in Virginia, PVC pipes on the ship burst, pushing departure further back. The delays prompted questions about how the temperatures aboard the ship would impact the order in which the weapons would be disposed of. “We were getting towards summer. We weren’t supposed to be destroying in summer. What happens when this stuff gets really hot?” There were similar problems if, for some reason, it happened to be too cold: Sulfur mustard has a freezing point of 58 degrees, and if it were frozen, it couldn’t be processed by the hydrolysis machine.
Finally, as the last bolts were put in place and the boat was ready to embark, there was one last query. Like the others, it appeared in the form of an email on Limage’s worn, government-issue Blackberry: Julia, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs would like to know who is going to certify the ship? “I was like, ‘What does that mean? How do you certify?’ ” Limage recalls.
Someone needed to guarantee that the ship, and all of its unprecedented modifications, was fit for duty. Normally, the relevant division of the armed services would be the one responsible for certifying the vessel, but as in the early days, suddenly no one wanted the responsibility of putting their neck on the line. Ultimately, the buck was passed all the way to the top: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel himself signed the paperwork, and on Jan. 10, 2014, the boat departed Virginia.
There would be more delays getting the weapons out of Syria, tracking each barrel as it made its way across the country and figuring out a plan to decontaminate the ship once it returned to port, but by July the chemical agents had been loaded aboard the Cape Ray and the process of neutralizing 600 of the 1,200 metric tons extracted from Syria had begun.
“Once the destruction operation started, Eucom took over and everything went black,” Limage says. “All of a sudden, we didn’t get any information. Our part had basically concluded.” At the same time, there were reports from West Africa of a new emerging threat: a rare hemorrhagic fever that sent patients into multiple-organ failure. A new team at DTRA was being stood up to respond to the Ebola outbreak, and both Goldstein and Limage were pulled onto it.
The destruction of Syria’s declared stockpile was completed on Aug. 18, 2014, and the MV Cape Ray began making its way back to Virginia to be swabbed down and disinfected. But on Aug. 19, the Assad regime launched a chlorine attack on Daraa. On Aug. 20, Damascus was hit; villages in the countryside outside the capital on Aug. 22.
The ongoing attacks were demoralizing, Cinnamon says. “You’re heartbroken. You see images you never wanted to see again, after what should’ve been a jubilant celebration: We finally got this stuff taken care of, and we did something that no one said could be done. . . . ‘Nothing I did really mattered,’ that’s what goes through your mind,” he says, glumly.
Eight days after the 2013 chemical attacks on Ghouta and Moadamiyat al-Sham — the ones that triggered the international response — Ameenah Sawwan was at a wedding. The bride’s grandmother insisted on moving up the date; if she was going to die, she wanted to know that her granddaughter would be taken care of. During the reception, the wedding party could hear a pair of mortar shells exploding in the distance. “I remember we were saying, ‘I hope that nobody was harmed leaving the wedding.’ ” Later that night, Sawwan learned those mortar shells killed her brother, his wife, and their son. They’d survived the chemical attack, only to be killed by a conventional bomb a week later.
A recent U.N. report identified at least 350,209 individuals killed since the start of the Syrian civil war. The overwhelming majority of those deaths were by conventional means, rather than chemical ones.
The Obama administration didn’t roll out a billowing “Mission Accomplished” banner when the chemical destruction was finished — or mark the success in any meaningful public way. And it’s understandable why they might not have felt comfortable patting themselves on the back: Assad was continuing to attack Syrian civilians. The Islamic State had captured the Syrian city of Raqqa. Russia, the diplomatic partner that brokered the deal, had invaded Ukraine.
“There was this huge buildup of this huge, amazing mission,” Limage recalls. “But then you really couldn’t celebrate or even talk about it because of these horrible things. It was hard.”
In September, one year after she’d been tapped to join the Syria team, Julia Limage returned to Portsmouth for a small, commemorative ceremony. The ship was empty, quiet, the hydrolysis machines had been dismantled. All that hung in the air was the strong stench of bug spray. They were using that on people, she remembers thinking.
By that time, most of the team had scattered. Santee had retired from the Air Force a few months earlier. Cinnamon was rotated out to his next military posting. (He now works in the private sector.) Goldstein returned to the Department of Defense, and Limage moved on to a job at the Department of Homeland Security. (She and Simon recently welcomed their second child together.)
MacAulay and her husband retired from the military. The Air Force had made it hard for the couple to be assigned to the same place. “The system was not built for dual-military families,” she says. Policies were starting to shift, but they “weren’t shifting fast enough,” she says.
Even Schoenberger, who first suggested the ship option, vetted the idea, and tracked down the vessel, didn’t get internal accolades, according to Santee. “One of the last things I had to do was tell her she didn’t get promoted as I’m leaving the Air Force,” Santee says, adding that he wrote a memo telling the folks in charge to “get their heads on straight.” (Schoenberger is still in the military. She can’t discuss the work she does these days, but she has since been promoted — twice.)
A few of the merchant marines, and the Edgewood chemists, and some Obama officials would go on road shows, giving presentations about the mission, but the four women who were there from the beginning didn’t. “We didn’t get the flashy stuff. We weren’t on the news. We weren’t on the boat, getting all the credit and the hero’s welcome when they came home,” MacAulay says. But, she admits, that’s the way these things often go. “Most people only applaud the pilot who dropped the bomb, or the pilot who rescued someone. The maintainers — all of the people that enabled that airplane to get into the air to do what it did — those people never get credit.”