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Chickens pressed into service to help Marines prepare for chemical attacks

CAMP MATILDA, Kuwait—The Marines here have done everything possible to prepare for chemical attacks. Each carries a gas mask. Each has an automatic dispenser that will inject an antidote to chemical weapons.

Now they're bringing in the chickens. If only the birds will live long enough to die.

"They will be like the proverbial canary in the coal mine," said Lt. Col. Rob Abbott, commander of the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion from Camp Pendleton, Calif., which has set up camp in the Kuwaiti desert awaiting further orders.

"If they're alive, we're pretty safe," said Chief Warrant Officer Joe Santos, 33, of El Paso, Texas. If they die, well, fear a chemical attack. Maybe.

Unfortunately, all but one of the chickens in the first shipment died within the first week, before they could be pressed into service. The chickens were housed in a cage made of wire covered with camouflage netting, but they refused to eat. Santos thinks they arrived sick. "They were already dying," he said.

More chickens have been ordered, and Santos remains confident that they'll provide an important added layer of protection. Santos, who has 15 years' experience in nuclear, chemical and biological warfare with the Marine Corps, said soldiers brought in chickens on their own in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

In that conflict, the Iraqis set fire to oil fields. Oil well fires give off hydrogen sulfide, which is a component of mustard gas, Abbott noted. As a result, some units in the Gulf War "thought we were contaminated, but we weren't."

A live chicken would help quell those fears.

And no apologies to those who might think it's cruel to put the birds in harm's way.

Said Santos: "It's the chickens or me."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WARBIRDS