Army investigating disease striking American forces

URBANA – As a mysterious respiratory illness strikes U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait, their families are asking the Army to talk openly about the threat.

The Army is sending two teams of medical investigators to the Mideast and to a German medical base this week to check soldiers and tissue samples for a disease they have labeled as pneumonia.

The deaths of at least two young soldiers in Operation Enduring Freedom have been attributed to pneumonia, the Army says. Thirteen soldiers have been or are still on ventilators, and another 100 troops seem to have had milder forms of the disease.

An Army spokeswoman said she cannot discuss individual cases of soldiers whose deaths are blamed on breathing problems, including Spc. Cory A. Hubbell of Urbana, who died serving as an engineer in the operation. Mr Hubbell is not listed as one of the two soldiers who have died of pneumonia.

"We have to protect the privacy of the soldiers," said Lyn Kukral, a public affairs specialist in the Office of the Army Surgeon General.

Mr. Hubbell, 20, was hospitalized with breathing difficulties at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, an Army statement said, on June 25, and died at 1:20 a.m. the next day.

His mother said the tragedy has been compounded for her family by uncertainties about how her son died.

The Army lists Mr. Hubbell's cause of death as "breathing difficulties," not as pneumonia. Beyond that, the Army has not told his mother, Connie Bickers of Urbana, why her apparently healthy son succumbed.

"I wish I had answers, but I don't know if I'm ever going to get them," Connie Bickers said.

It has also been a rough time for a Missouri family, says Marie Gudde, whose grand-nephew, Spc. Joshua M. Neusche, of Montreal, Mo., died July 12.

His cause of death is listed as pneumonia, but Gudde said her family is not convinced that the liver and kidney failure described by the Army is consistent with pneumonia.

Doctors sent Mr. Neusche to a German hospital for emergency dialysis, but he died en route.

"The Army is not forthcoming with the actual reason of death, and there are more in the hospitals as we speak with the same symptoms," Gudde said. "We believe there is bioterrorism or something similar going on."

Gudde said she believes the government could be covering up evidence of Iraqi bioterrorism, such as anthrax, to avoid panicking families of soldiers and causing a backlash against the war.

The Army Surgeon General's office is able to say what the pneumonia is not. His office said Tuesday it has identified no infectious agent common to all of the cases.

"Additionally, there is no evidence that any of the pneumonia cases being investigated have been caused by exposure to chemical or biological weapons, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), or environmental toxins," a press release said.

The two deaths are attributed to streptococcal pneumonia, a common infection.

Col. Robert DeFraites said the 15 pneumonia cases severe enough for soldiers – and one Marine – to be placed on respirators involve different military units, different places in the region and different times.

Two cases occurred in March, two in April, one in May, six in June and four in July and none this month.

Of the 15, the Army said,10 have recovered, two have died and three remain hospitalized.

According to Army statistics, pneumonia serious enough to warrant hospitalization occurs in about nine of 10,000 soldiers per year.

Based on this number, the approximately 100 total cases of pneumonia in the Iraqi theater since March 1 do not exceed expectations.

From 1998 through 2002, 17 soldiers have died from pneumonia or from complications of pneumonia.

You can reach Paul Wood at (217) 351-5203 or via e-mail at pwood@news-gazette.com.

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