Doomsday brigade They are preparing for one of our worst nightmares: biological, chemical or nuclear attack. But first they must learn to conquer their fears.

July 30, 1998|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Sun Staff

Some carry gas masks in their trunks. Some have antidotes in their glove compartments. They've been through drill after drill. Are they ready?

They are the M*A*S*H unit for Doomsday.

They are the military doctors, nurses and medics who, when the inevitable biological or chemical attack comes, are going to be responsible for the injured, who'll have to keep their wits amid chaos, who'll have to fight a deadly, unseen, sometimes unknown, enemy.

One hundred of them - volunteers all - have crammed into classrooms at Maryland's Edgewood Arsenal and Fort Detrick for the first medical class to address all three weapons of mass destruction - chemical, biological, nuclear. Or a combination. They all have reasons to volunteer, and they all face a common enemy: fear.

One is a doctor who listened helplessly from his ship to TV reports of a terrorist attack on the Japanese subway traveled by his wife and children.

Another is a nurse whose father helped radiation victims in postwar Japan.

A third is in charge of mobilizing a bone-marrow transplant bank that could be the only hope for soldiers gassed with mustard. In case of war, one of the first victims may be her husband, a military medic.

Sooner or later these medical experts will enter a battlefield untested on a mass scale. It could be botulism dripped into a restaurant salad bar. The dusting of an American embassy with anthrax. A pox among U.S. soldiers in the Saudi desert. Who knows how many people will die before these volunteers can return medical fire? Only this is sure: Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives will be in their hands.

"This is your fate," they are told. "You'll be regarded as a savior ... or as the people who made a mistake."

In a simple brick classroom at Edgewood Arsenal, the old U.S. chemical weapons depot on the edge of Aberdeen Proving Ground north of Baltimore, Lt. Col. James M. Madsen, 46, hurls Lifesavers at rows of soldiers foggy from travel. It's his opening salvo in the military's Berlitz-style class earlier this year in the next frontier of medicine.

His smile, like his energy, is broad and deep.

"EXXX-cel-lent!" he yells, jumping up, waving his arms excitedly, when somebody calls out a correct answer.

His exuberance suits his boyish face, parted crew cut, turned-out ears, polished shoes. "Mister Rogers on Speed" one student dubs him. His high is natural. Even coffee is barred by his Mormon faith.

A pathologist, Madsen is as intimate with the nuances of death as he is obsessed with preventing it. Washington tapped him to teach the Doomsday squad after the 1991 gulf war, when he took it upon himself, as a battalion physician, to convince reluctant soldiers to take a controversial, untested pill against nerve gas.

Watching Madsen in the classroom, one sees why people take a leap of faith with him. What Madsen preaches most ardently is this: Information is the antidote for fear.

His preparation for this class began five years ago when Madsen, newly assigned to the Edgewood chemical team, educated himself by writing up 21 single-spaced pages of notes on the military and terrorist use of chemical agents from 3000 B.C. to the present.

These he distributes to the "students," along with 11 pounds of special gear - jacket, pants, boots, belt, gloves and gas masks.

The monster-bug look of the breathing mask hasn't changed from World War II. It still uses a charcoal filter to keep out poison but now it's fine enough to allow the wearer to speak, hear and drink clean water through a straw attached to a thermos at the hip.

"Try it," Madsen urges. In the desert, he had slept in it rather than take it on and off each time the siren sounded.

The mask is surprisingly light. The other surprise is that it lops off a sizable chunk of vision.

And it's so much work to breathe that the initial reaction is to rip off the mask to get some air. The mask and military gear raise the body's temperature 15 degrees. Madsen's commander grew so hot on his third bus trip through the desert that he nearly pulled it off, despite the risk of being doused with a deadly chemical. "Just let them throw it," he said. "I don't care."

Every soldier will be tempted to pull off the mask, the class is told, but only one or two people in hundreds of thousands develop mask phobias. The rest will learn to live in this rubber monster, sleep in it, work in it. Otherwise they could become victims of airborne terror like the Kurdish woman in the photograph Madsen flashes before the class time and again.

The image was taken by journalists in the late 1980s after Iraq reportedly cleared villages of Iraqi Kurds with cyanide. The woman was climbing the steps with her swaddled baby when she fell, face down, on the concrete. Her arm remains gripped around her infant. The baby's face, tilted to the sky, is calm, as if in sleep. His mouth is open in a tiny halo. A thin line of blood drips from his lips.

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