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U.S. Troops Equipped for Battle Health Hazards

Soldiers in war with Iraq protected against biological, chemical threats, experts say

THURSDAY, March 20, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- The attack on Iraq that has just begun will offer its own variations on the war-is-hell lament.

But U.S. troops are prepared for anything Saddam Hussein or an inhospitable desert might conjure up because, unhappily, they've been there, done that, say Department of Defense officials and medical experts.

In a recent briefing with reporters, leading medical officers from all four branches of the military spelled out the measures taken to defend the troops against chemical and biological weapons and anything else the Iraqis might unleash -- and to treat casualties quickly.

William Winkenwerder, Assistant Secretary of Defense Health Affairs, said at the briefing, "Our level of effort and our capability to protect our forces is unprecedented in military history."

Specifically, Winkenwerder said, "Our people have the best equipment to protect them against biological and chemical threats of any fighting forces in the world."

Allied forces must be ready for those threats because "Iraq has had 12 years to build potential stores of biological weapons," said Philip M. Tierno Jr., adjunct associate professor of microbiology at New York University and a consultant on those weapons.

Anna Johnson-Winegar, Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense Chem/Bio, described U.S. defenses against those weapons. They include:

  • mobile detectors that can pick up the first, faint traces of an airborne biological agent;
  • lightweight protective suits that can be worn for days;
  • shelters where troops can huddle if a chemical or biological agent is released;

When casualties occur, swift treatment will be available, said Admiral John Mateczun, Joint Staff Senior Medical Officer.

"The forward surgical teams, only a dream 10 years ago during Operation Desert Storm, have now become a reality," he said. Those teams provide "lifesaving resuscitative surgery early and quickly, within that golden hour that we know we need to get casualties to."

There's also the Air Medical Evacuation System, which can transport wounded combatants to more advanced medical centers far from the battlefield, says Lt. General James Peake, U.S. Army Surgeon General.

The effectiveness of that system was shown last April, when two pilots who suffered severe injuries in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan arrived for surgery at a hospital in Germany within 17 hours of the mishap, he said.

"This is just one seemingly unbelievable but, in fact, increasingly routine example of our integrated medical operations," Peake said.

Still, there are some unavoidably grim questions.

For instance, should a soldier who dies after exposure to a chemical or biological weapon be cremated for safety's sake?

"We carefully reviewed that issue," Winkenwerder said. "It is our policy that all such service members, should that come to pass for them, would be transported back to the United States."

The Pentagon has also ordered 15,000 body bags.

One problem has already surfaced -- the blinding, hot winds and sandstorms that are tearing at troops mobilized in Kuwait.

Still, heat and wind-blown sand were hazards in the first war against Iraq in 1991, said Dr. H. Leonard Pechter, a professor of surgery at New York University School of Medicine, who teaches the management of battlefield wounds.

And Vietnam was stifling, too, although it was wet, he added.

In their briefing, the officials said nothing about measures to protect and treat civilians caught up in the war. One striking feature of warfare in the 20th century was that more civilians than combatants died.

More information

A transcript of the briefing is offered by the Department of Defense. CNN has more on biological and chemical weapons.

SOURCES: H. Leonard Pachter, M.D., professor, surgery, New York University School of Medicine, New York City; Philip M. Tierno Jr., Ph.D., adjunct associate professor, microbiology, New York University School of Medicine, New York City; March 13, 2003, briefing, U.S. Department of Defense; photo courtesy of U.S. Army
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