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Biochemical Gear Becomes Standard Part of Marines' Equipment - 2003-03-10


The U.S. military's preparation against possible Iraqi chemical and biological attacks includes specially-designed protective suits and masks.

A U.S. Marine explains to curious reporters how he meticulously cleans his M-16 rifle every day, keeping it free of sand and anything else that might make the weapon jam at a critical moment during battle.

Traditionally, a Marine has always considered his rifle his most important possession. He is taught to never let it out of his sight. But as a possible war with Iraq looms closer, Marines like Lance Corporal Ben Fuller say they have something else that is equally important.

"I don't think anyone here is really that terrified because we've got gas masks," Corporal Fuller said. "We carry them wherever we go."

Gas masks are now mandatory gear for all U.S. forces in Kuwait. Everyone is required to have the masks strapped to their hips at all times, even during physical exercises. U.S. troops have also been told to carry a nerve gas antidote called atropine, to be used if the gas masks fail.

Training to become proficient in using the masks is almost constant. Troops must put their masks on properly in just eight seconds.

But few people seem to mind the hassle and the inconvenience of such training. During the 1991 Gulf war, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein did not use chemical weapons against U.S. troops. Analysts have suggested that was because a government change in Baghdad was not the goal of the coalition formed to liberate Kuwait.

But the Bush administration has said if there is a war this time, removing the Iraqi leader will be a primary goal. Many people, like Marine Lance Corporal Gabriel Lopez, believe the threat of a chemical attack by Iraq is now very real.

"I think there is a greater chance," Corporal Lopez said. "I am sure all of us in the back of our heads think and know it could happen."

Gas masks are only a part of the U.S. military's biochemical protection package. The overall protective suit, called the Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology, includes trousers and a hooded jacket made of chemical-resistant synthetic fibers, rubber galoshes that fit over combat boots and rubber gloves.

While the complete unit can give a person maximum protection during a chemical attack, it is cumbersome and awkward to move around in. And on a hot day, the temperature inside the suit can rise to 45 degrees Celsius.

Lance Corporal Adam Scott says the Marines have trained extensively in the suits and masks. He says fighting in full biochemical gear is an exhausting experience.

"You are soaked in sweat and tired," he said. "They are pretty heavy because you put that on and you put on all your other gear, your flak jacket. And we've got all our stuff strapped on our flak jackets. So, they're heavy and not very comfortable."

Nevertheless, U.S. troops say the protective gear they have now is far better than the bulky chemical suits the U.S. military used to have in its inventory. They looked like space suits and made moving and fighting very difficult. The new outfit is lighter and easier to wear. In fact, although it is hot and cumbersome, troops are supposed to be able to wear it for extended periods if necessary.

And that is exactly what they might have to do in case of a chemical or biological attack. In that situation, the protective suit could rival the trusty M-16 rifle as a soldier or Marine's most important possession.