On rare occasions, insurgents in the Iraq War targeted American soldiers and civilians with chemical attacks in the form of chlorine bombings, which injured troops unlike any other weapon they faced.
One such attack occurred in Fallujah, Iraq on March 28, 2007. It is recounted in the perspective of Marine First Lieutenant Travis Manion in the new book “Brothers Forever,” co-written by Tom Sileo and Manion’s father, retired Marine Colonel Tom Manion.
Manion was sleeping in a government compound when a loud explosion jolted him awake. Although he didn’t know it yet, insurgents had just attacked the compound with a truck bomb packed with chlorine.
Manion and three fellow Marines dashed under enemy gunfire to a nearby barracks, which had been blasted open by the truck bomb. Inside, the building was “hot, uncomfortable, and smelled like a collection of large pools.”
Manion was already coughing and covering his nose and mouth as he headed up to the roof to provide security for evacuating soldiers. There, he crossed paths with Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, who had been much closer to the chlorine truck bomb when it detonated and who wrote about the attack in his 2011 memoir, “The Heart and the Fist.”
Greitens recalled the first moments after the chemical explosion:
In the barracks, I heard men coughing around me, the air thick with dust. Then the burning started. It felt as if someone had shoved an open-flame lighter inside my mouth, the flames scorching my throat, my lungs. My eyes burned and I squinted them shut, then fought to keep them open.
Chlorine was used during World War I chemical attacks to choke enemy soldiers. In a gas state, chlorine appears yellow-green in colour and produces an acid that can damage tissue in a person’s eyes, throat, and lungs, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms include blurred vision, coughing, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, blisters, fluid build-up in lungs, and burning sensations in the nose, throat, and eyes. Long-term complications are possible for some who breathe in particularly high concentrations of the chlorine.
The March 28, 2007 explosion had wiped out an entire wall of the barracks and left behind a cloud of chlorine vapor. Their vision blurred, Greitens and his comrades stumbled outside, where they felt the immediate symptoms of the weaponised chlorine:
On my hands and knees, I began hacking up chlorine gas and spraying spittle. My stomach spasmed in an effort to vomit, but nothing came. Fisher later said he saw puffs of smoke coming from my mouth and nostrils. A thin Iraqi in tan pants and a black shirt, his eyes blood red, was bent over in front of me, throwing up. Cords of yellow vomit dangled from his mouth.
The burning sensation settled in Greitens’ lungs, causing him to gag when he inhaled. But he and two others managed to climb to the roof of the bombed-out barracks to defend the compound. “My breathing was still shallow, and I felt as if someone had tightened a belt around my lungs and was pulling hard to kill me,” he wrote.
Manion was the next soldier to reach the roof, where he relieved Greitens of his post so he could be transported to a hospital. “I got your back, sir,” Manion had told him, recounted in “Brothers Forever.”
“After throwing up a few more times, Travis [Manion] rallied to push his physical symptoms aside, knowing from the hellish sights below that many could be killed in a subsequent explosion or firefight. Every time his stomach churned or his eyes started to burn, Travis would block out the discomfort and focus on his responsibility to save lives.”
For Greitens, the symptoms lingered. “For the next few weeks I spent every night hacking and coughing in bed,” he wrote. “When I woke in the morning and tried to run, my lungs hurt. I felt like they had been zipped half-shut. Still, I ran every day, and eventually I cold take a deep, full breath.”
Seventeen American soldiers suffered wounds and serious complications from the explosion and chlorine vapor, but none died. The U.S. Department of Defence reported in 2007 that despite many injuries in dozens of recent chlorine bombings throughout Iraq, few were believed to have been killed from the chlorine alone.
Manion was killed by a sniper a month later. Greitens visited Manion’s parents to comfort them after their loss. “When Travis said, ‘I got your back,’ he meant it,” Greitens wrote.
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