The parents of an American soldier who died in Iraq after contracting a mysterious pneumonialike illness that ravaged his major organs are convinced that their son stumbled across deadly chemical weapons while clearing rubble from one of Saddam Hussein's palaces.
Spc. Josh Neusche, 20, who had been conducting cleanup operations in Baghdad, died July 12 after being transferred from his base at the airport to a U.S. military hospital in Germany.
Army specialists are analyzing tissue samples from his liver, kidneys and lungs to determine the cause of death.
Two U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq have died after their major organs failed. Seven others have reported similarly serious symptoms, although overall about 100 cases have been diagnosed since March 1.
Lt. Gen. James Peake, the Army surgeon general, has sent two doctors and four other disease specialists to Iraq and two more doctors to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where some of the troops were treated after being flown from Iraq. The teams are retracing the soldiers' steps in hopes of pinpointing the source of infection.
Mark and Cindi Neusche of Montreal, Mo., told the Sunday Telegraph that their son had lapsed into unconsciousness less than an hour after writing a letter to them in his tent.
He had begun to complain of a sore throat and difficulty in breathing, and had been making his way to the field dressing station at the camp when he came across a medic, muttered a few words and collapsed at his feet.
The Army believes Spc. Neusche had been suffering from pneumonia.
Mr. Neusche, 40, an electrician, said: "I honestly feel that he must have got into some sort of chemical weapon or something. For Josh to fall into a coma in just a few hours, it has to be something like that. He was a strong boy and he knew how to look after himself. This could not have been a natural thing. We have been told that his lungs and kidneys collapsed, and he had toxins eating at his muscle structure."
Mrs. Neusche, 43, added: "I still want to know what my son died of. But we know that he had been on a hauling mission for 20 hours, and he told us in a letter that he had been clearing rubble from one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. I am convinced that he stumbled across something deadly from a chemical weapon that had been buried in that palace."
Spc. Neusche, who was serving with the 203rd Engineer Battalion in Baghdad, was buried with full military honors in Montreal on July 22 after his body was returned from Germany.
After the funeral, Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, said: "The Army has confirmed that three or four of the soldiers in Josh's unit are among those who got sick. They are investigating everything it could possibly be. I'm confident that we will get some answers."
Military officials said there was no evidence that the cases, which are spread among troops deployed across Iraq, were caused by exposure to chemical or biological weapons, or environmental toxins.
"It is pneumonia. The question is what is the cause," said Lyn Kukral, spokesman for Gen. Peake and the Army Medical Command.
"The epidemiological teams will look and follow the facts wherever they lead," she said. "You've got a healthy population and a young population, and you have two soldiers who have died. And that's a concern."
Fifteen of the 100 soldiers were ill enough to require ventilator support. According to the Army, these severe cases have been spaced out fairly evenly, which doesn't suggest a single-source epidemic. Three occurred in March, three in April, two in May, three in June and four in July.
Mrs. Neusche said receiving the flag at her son's funeral was an honor.