The New York Times front page recently reported that the Bush administration is contemplating a “big invasion” of Iraq involving up to 250,000 U.S. troops—but that any attack would “probably be delayed until early next year.” One reason for the delay, the Times story said, was “avoiding summer combat in bulky chemical suits,” but it didn’t breathe another word about this. A subsequent Times piece on Saddam’s chemical weapons added a few general details about protective chemical/biological warfare gear but mostly left me wanting to know more: What do actual soldiers say about wearing those suits in triple-digit temperatures?
The Army apparently didn’t want me to know—a month of attempts through official channels to reach some GIs to talk about this went nowhere—but I finally made some contacts on my own. One Army officer, who periodically trained with the gear in Saudi Arabia during the summer buildup to the Gulf War, told me that—as the Times reported—people who wear the suits in hot weather do have to drink more water to avoid getting dehydrated. But an even bigger problem, he said, is how they’ll have to drink it. “You have to take out this thing from your mask and hook it in to your canteen and push it down and seal it,” he said. “The apparatus that goes from the mask to the canteen top is not that long, a couple, three inches. So it’s right up next to your face and you’re trying to look down through the mask to get that thing hooked up. … It might take you a minute to get a drink of water.
“If Hussein’s invading Kuwait in the summer, yeah, you just go and get the job done,” he told me, “but if you can avoid doing it then, why not?”
Another currently serving Gulf War veteran said the CBW gear makes aiming your weapon, communicating, and even breathing more difficult. He described the time in Saudi Arabia in August 1990, during the Gulf War build-up, when his unit’s chemical officer put on the complete CBW outfit: “After 30 minutes of walking around outside, he was pretty much done. Exhausted. … The sweat was so high inside his protective mask that it was interfering with his vision.”
This officer concludes that in the summer in that part of the world, “the current suit would reduce combat effectiveness by 60 to 70 percent or even more. You simply cannot walk around in 100-degree temperatures with the equivalent of a snowmobile suit on and expect not to have heat casualties and degraded operations.”