by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
August 1, 2003
A SILENT KILLER STALKS U.S. TROOPS IN IRAQ
BRADENTON, Fla., Aug. 1, 2003, 10.00am EST -- A mystery illness that bears some similarities to chemical and radiation poisoning has killed at least two U.S. soldiers In Iraq since June 17 and sickened another 11, said worried Army officials who this week took the unusual step of dispatching two elite epidemiological teams to investigate.
Missouri National Guardsman Spec. Joshua Neusche of Montreal, Mo., a community in the Ozark Mountains 35 miles from Fort Leonard Wood, died July 12 of a disease that weakened the former track star's kidneys, liver and muscles overnight. The other soldier, unnamed in the Gannet story, died June 12, was identified by The American Reporter him as Sgt. Michael L. Tosto, 24, of Apex, N.C.. At a Website devoted to the memories of fallen soldiers, a woman identified as Tosto's wife writes:
"To the family of Joshua Neusche. My name is Stephanie Tosto. My husband Sgt Michael tosto died on june 17th in iraq.The cause of death is unknown but when i read an article about your son i was shocked. It was almost like looking at a photocopy. Michael was always healthy. He was never sick and all of the sudden he got ill. The doctor thought it was pneumonia too. If we could get in contact somehow that would be great. I want to fight this because something is happening over there that they are not telling us. I'm so sorry for you loss and i know how you feel about this."
In another note expressing condolences at the Website, http://www.fallenheroesmemorial.com, a woman who identifies herself as Kathy Hubbell of Missoula, Mont., says she is a member of a group called the Military Vaccine Education Center and writes, "We would urge you to read up on the problems associated with the mandatory bioterrorism vaccines and on Gulf War Syndrome. It's difficult to know the answers to these tragic deaths, but it's not difficult to discover that our troops are being subjected to things that have caused a great deal of harm."
No specific virus or other agent has been identified in either of the deaths, DeFraites said. He noted that while respiratory distress syndromes have killed a total of 17 soldiers in the past five years, it is out of the ordinary for pneumonia to cause deterioration of other body organs.
A two-person team has been to the Landstuhl, Germany, U.S. Army hospital where the two men died, and a six-person team to Iraq, where the other illnesses originated, according to a statement from the U.S. Army Surgeon General's chief of preventive medicine. The name of the Iraqi region to which the second team was sent is not being disclosed. The teams hope to identify the source of the illnesses.
"Nothing's going to be ruled out," said Col. Robert DeFraites, who said dispatching such teams is rare. DeFraites spoke to a reporter from Gannett News Service.
Neusche, a graduate of Southern Missouri State University, was a heavy equipment operator with the Army's Reserve's 203rd Engineers Battalion in Joplin, Mo., who fell sick after returning to his camp in Baghdad in June 30 after a four-day mission. Fellow soldiers found him "unresponsive" in his tent the next morning. His parents flew to Germany to join him on July 2, but soon were told his organs had stopped functioning and that he would be sent for dialysis to Hamburg. Neusche died on July 12 before he reached Hamburg, his parents said.
"The problem with Josh's death was that they didn't know what they were fighting," said Mark Neusche, Joshua's father. "The doctors said [he] had gotten into some kind of toxin that began degenerating his muscles." The soldier's parents say they are "not against the military on this," adding, "Josh would want us to find out what happened to him."
Sgt. Tosto was assigned to Company A of the 1st Battalion of the 35th Armored Regiment, 1st Armored Division, headquartered at Smith Barracks, Germany. He died at Camp Wolf in Kuwait after fighting with his unit in Iraq, which remembered him in a memorial service beside the Tigris River.
The Fallen Soldiers Memorial site says both men died of non-combat-related causes.
One illness that may produce such symptoms is radiation poisoning such as might be due to exposure to depleted uranium, but DeFraites said there was no indication of that. Infectious agents such as anthrax and smallpox will also be investigated, he told reporter Eric Eckert of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader, a Gannett newspaper.
Mark Neusche told the Gannet reporter that he believed his son had contracted the illness while digging into the sand. "We know there are chemical weapons over there. Maybe something was leaked into the sand." U.S. inspectors have found no trace of depleted uranium or chemical or biological weapons to date.
The epidemiological teams were dispatched twice last year in high-profile cases. One examined a rash of murders at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and the second studied an outbreak of meningitis at Fort Leonard Wood in Waynesville, Mo., home to the Army's chemical weapons and engineering schools and its vaunted RAID teams, which are trained to respond near-instantly to emergencies involving chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The headquarters support company of Detachment 2 of Neusche's 203rd Engineers Battalion is stationed at the base.
It is not known if Neusche trained at Fort Leonard Wood, where soldiers handle toxic chemicals in training designed to make them "chemical veterans," as a base Website puts it. His home in Montreal is 35 miles from the base. The Army's vaunted RAID unit, which is designed for rapid response to chemical, biological and nuclear incidents, is also stationed at that base and is a key resource of the Dept. of Homeland Security. It is unknown whether Neusche handled chemical, biological or nuclear materials in Iraq, or why he would do so.
The dispatch of the special epidemiological units "happens or two times a year," DeFraites told reporter Eric Eckert of the Springfield (Mo.) New-Leader, a Gannett newspaper.
"When you go into one of these things, you keep an open mind," Col. DeFraites told Eckert. "There's enough concern about these two fatal cases in such a short time" to warrant a special investigation, he said.
The number of pneumonia cases among soldiers in Iraq has surpassed the military's expectations, DeFraites said, with between 10 and 20 struck each month. Since March 1, some 12 soldiers in the Iraq Central Command's area of responsibility have been hospitalized and placed on respirators after succumbing to the pneumonia-like illness. Most have gone back to work, he said.