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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

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Sunday, April 6

Marines battle awkward protection gear while fighting Iraqi forces

By C. Mark Brinkley | Marine Corps Times

OUTSIDE BAGHDAD, Iraq - If anything, chemical protection boots were supposed to make the Marine corporal safer.

But during an artillery mission here April 4, while grabbing for a 100-pound shell from the bed of his ammo truck, the corporal's slick rubber boots lost traction. In the middle of a combat operation, the Marine fell four feet to the ground, breaking his right leg in two places and prompting an immediate ground medevac.

With that tumble came yet another strike against the Mission-Oriented, Protective-Posture suits, designed to keep the troops fighting here, less than 10 miles from downtown Baghdad, safe from chemical and biological weapons.

From the war's onset, Marine officials were determined to protect the troops from such deadly attacks.

"If you're a real man, you can fight without that crap,'' said Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, during a prewar press briefing in Kuwait on March 12, referring to chemical and biological weapons. "But, if (Saddam) wants to use it, we'll meet him on that score too.''

The Marines traded in their cool cammies for charcoal-lined chem suits a week later and have been wearing them ever since.

New camouflage suits hidden

Stuffed away in backpacks are the Corps' new combat utility uniform, which has a digital camouflage pattern different from the field uniforms of other services. The MOPP suits most Marines are wearing come in the same woodland print sported for decades, with cargo pockets on the legs and Velcro tabs at the ankles to hold them tight around their boots.

The black rubber boots, worn like galoshes over the troops' normal combat boots, trap heat and block airflow. Already, Marines are seeing the beginnings of trench foot, when skin peels off and bacteria settle in. Slight cases, if not treated properly, can become serious infections.

Some corpsmen have ordered their troops to air their feet out for at least two hours each day.

"I'm nasty,'' said one Marine gunnery sergeant, taking off his rubber boots to find sweat-soaked combat boots.

The MOPP suits trap heat as well, a bad thing as the temperatures near Baghdad top 100 degrees in the afternoons. Most Marines have heat rashes.

Staying clean and dry is nearly impossible; there have been no showers since days before the war kicked off and baby wipes are beginning to run low.

The suspendered trousers don't even have a zipper, turning a simple bathroom break into a nightmare of untucking and unbuckling.

Added to the discomfort are the random calls of "gas, gas, gas.'' The potential chemical attack alert, which filled the early days of the war but have become less frequent, prompt the Marines to put on their cumbersome gas masks.

One convoy drove more than an hour in the dark wearing their masks, night-vision goggles pressed to the lenses in a futile attempt to see, because of reports of an Iraqi unmanned aerial vehicle possibly equipped with chemical weapons. The report later proved to be a false alarm.

Overall, the MOPP suits are a sore subject among the Marines, many of whom are beginning to doubt the seriousness of the chemical weapon threat. And when the suits get in the way of getting the job done - whether by causing falls or slowing down movements - tempers begin to flare.

"It sucks to lose a corporal, period,'' said 1st Lt. Ty Yount, 26, executive officer for Battery M, 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines, whose Marine fell from the truck. "But to lose one like that, out here, that just makes it worse.''