Sunday, March 09, 2003

Christian Bauman (author of The Ice Beneath You) spoke at a National Press Club event on U.S. troop preparedness for chemical and biological warfare. His speech went as follows:

"I was a soldier for four years. I joined the US Army as an E1 Private at the tail of the Gulf War, and served in two major deployments: Somalia and Haiti.

Now I make my living as a novelist. Novelists deal in the world of fiction, generally speaking. Not facts. Not so different from the Department of Defense.

I speak to you today, though, not as a novelist, but as a citizen and a veteran. And it seems to me that the most important thing I could ever do to save the lives of fellow soldiers didn’t happen in Somalia, nor in Haiti. My time in those places was eye-opening and sometimes scary but harm-free. No, the most important thing I’ll ever do to save life and limb of a fellow soldier is what I’m doing right now.

Anyone who tells you that DoD wouldn’t think of sending its people into harm’s way without being fully protected is lying. I was sent to Somalia in December of 1992. The deployment came with plenty of warning. I had training filters in my gas mask, and a heavily used training MOPP suit in my rucksack. Even supposing the real equipment works correctly, I didn’t have it. Nor did anyone in my platoon. I wouldn’t have survived teargas, let alone a chemical or biological attack.

Was there a true chemical threat in Somalia? Well…does it matter? There wasn’t supposed to be ANY threat. We went to Somalia to help stop a famine and ended our stay there with the bodies of American GIs being dragged through the streets. That’s the definition of preparedness: you make sure ALL systems are go beforehand, because war and conflict follow their own schedule and have their own rules.

But what is really frightening is that in the First Gulf War, chemical and biological attack WAS expected. And the members of my platoon and company who’d deployed to the Gulf did so in the same way I later went to Somalia: with training filters in their masks and heavily used training MOPP suits in their rucksacks. And the stuff was never upgraded while they were in-country. Every night, the Scud missle alert would sound, and they would go to MOPP 4, and as the missiles exploded over their heads they were essentially unprotected, in gear that either didn’t work or wasn’t meant to work.

Colonel David Hackworth, the most decorated living American soldier, has a quote he uses a lot, from George Washington: "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly Proportional to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated…by their Nation."

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that the soldiers in the field now in the Gulf stand in harm’s way because of their own faulty equipment, and they know it. On so many levels, they don’t trust it—and experience points to the fact that they shouldn’t. What’s worse, they know it didn’t work for the veterans who came before them, and they’ve seen how the Pentagon has brushed them off.

Perhaps it’s easy to brush off 160,000 Gulf War Syndrome casualties, months and years after the fact. It won’t be so easy to brush off entire battalions of American soldiers laid to waste in the face of a full-out chemical attack that they are not properly equipped for."

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