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Soldiers examined for possible exposure to chemical agents

SOUTH OF KARBALA, Iraq—Four soldiers from the 2nd brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, with red sores on their faces and hands, were sent by ambulance to a rear MASH unit Tuesday. They were told they would be examined for possible contact with nerve or blistering agents.

Once at the 30th medical brigade's mobile hospital at the 101st's headquarters south of Karbala, the soldiers were isolated from other troops and photographed. A doctor at the MASH, Maj. David Wolken, interviewed each soldier and measured his pulse and heart rate in a tent with a dirt floor. One soldier was taken for an X-ray because of wheezing. There were no blood or skin tests done on any of the soldiers. After several hours, the men were placed back in the ambulance and returned to their forward units.

Wolken, said there was no question in his mind that the rashes were connected to the men's exposure to chemicals Sunday at a military compound near Karbala, but said they probably were not linked to a finished nerve agent.

"But it is possible," he said "that soldiers were exposed to the raw ingredients of a nerve agent. Right now there is no treatment. Time will be helpful so we can see the progression of the symptoms."

Wolken said that he hoped that within a week's time the rashes would begin fading.

Those examined included two soldiers from an armored Humvee company, one foot infantry soldier, an airman attached to the brigade and this Knight Ridder reporter embedded with the Humvee unit.

All five have red sores on their hands and faces in varying degrees.

At least a dozen other soldiers, who were left behind in Karbala and were not examined, have similar sores on their faces and hands.

The soldiers examined told doctors identical stories. They all spent time in or around a military installation Sunday near the town of Albu Muhawish, to the east of Karbala, 60 miles south of Baghdad. Each man began developing red rashes Sunday evening and, for some, the rashes still appeared to be spreading Tuesday.

Initial field tests at the military installation were positive for the nerve agent sarin. More than a dozen soldiers were found to be "hot" after being scanned with a handheld Improved Chemical Agent Monitor. They were walked through a decontamination shower and then scanned again. All of the troops were moved back into the compound when a second battery of field tests for sarin was inconclusive. All soldiers were removed from the area on Monday.

Airman First Class Jim Harriman, sitting in a tent at the division headquarters Tuesday, said he questioned the reasoning for moving troops back into the military installation area Sunday night.

"We found out about it once, and then we got to go back again?" asked Harriman, 21, of Boston. "I personally thought they were crazy to send troops back in there."

Harriman has sores on his hands and arms.

At an agricultural warehouse near the military installation, barrels were found Monday

with substances that have initially tested positive—by two separate Fox vehicles—for the presence of nerve agents Sarin and Tabun and also the blister agent Lewsite. Samples from the warehouse are being tested in the United States to determine if they are of weapons grade.

"With the potential for chemical exposure in that community, that's one of the things we want to investigate," said Capt. Alan Conway, a doctor who traveled with the group of soldiers in the ambulance. "The idea is to have an assessment of the rashes."

Conway stressed that there was no known direct link between possible exposure to toxic chemicals and the rashes.

"Yes, there were chemicals in the environment. Yes, the troops went through the installations and yes, they have rashes," Conway said. "Are all those things related? It's really hard to say."

In addition to documenting the incident, Conway said the interviews serve a possible second purpose.

"Part of it is wanting paperwork because 10 years down the road is somebody going to come back to say `I can't have kids because I was in Karbala,'" Conway said.

When asked why all of the soldiers who have rashes were not being examined, Conway said:

"The idea was to sample the people who were affected. Did we have people we couldn't spare as we drove to Baghdad? Yeah, that was a command decision. That's why we didn't bring everybody."


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