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Chemical suits offer good protection—if not used too early

FORT HOOD, Texas—They all looked stressed. Many of them weren't more than 20 years old.

The troops ate pizza Friday while Spc. Corey Joseph ran around organizing everyone in Charlie Company. They were part of the 2nd Battalion of the 20th Field Artillery, and they were leaving for Iraq on Friday.

Joseph is like Radar O'Reilly with attitude. He's short and thin and wears glasses, but a thin line from a tattoo snakes out from under his collar, hinting at something less innocent than a beloved, naive Iowa boy.

I talked to Joseph about our chemical suits. The charcoal-permeated jacket and pants are supposed to keep you from experiencing all sorts of heinous scarring from chemical attacks. Soldiers call it getting slimed. If you watch television you'll see almost everyone wearing them.

The Army told us we needed to carry the suits on the plane with us for the 26-hour trip that lay ahead. But because the suits are effective for only about 120 days after they are exposed to air, they asked us to keep them sealed in the stiff metal-like wrapping. Still, I asked if I could break the seal on mine to make it easier to pack.

Sgt. Donald Bango, from Philadelphia, said he thought it was fine. But later Joseph gave me a puzzled look and said: "They only last 120 days if nothing happens. If you get slimed with mustard gas it only lasts two days, if that."

I reconsidered unwrapping my suit.

Throughout the afternoon, soldiers and their families came through the battalion's readiness area. Each time a salty sergeant told someone to clean up the language. A gaggle of guys were standing around the bag cage where soldiers stow their bags. Some new private was locked inside. The older guys chuckled.

In the corner, two soldiers were wrestling while their friend looked on. In just a few hours they would be in lock-down, a period in which every move is monitored. They would get a few hours to visit with their families and then they would travel 7,000 miles away to fight a war.


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

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