7 more cases of mystery illness
Military trying to identify malady that killed lake area soldier

By Marsha Paxson

Lake Sun

LAKE OF THE OZARKS -- Seven more soldiers in Iraq have contracted the same puzzling illness that has killed two soldiers, including one from the lake area. The latest cases bring the number of affected troops to 19. All have been evacuated to the same Landstuhl, Germany, hospital where Spec. Josh Neusche, 20, of Montreal was treated before he died July 12.

It is believed Neusche contracted the illness, first thought to be pneumonia, while conducting cleanup operations with the 203rd Engineer Battalion in Baghdad. "The Army Surgeon General confirmed that three or four of the soldier's in Josh's unit are among those who got sick," Sen. Ike Skelton told the Lake Sun Tuesday. "I know Josh was stationed in Baghdad when he got sick but I still do not know what unit the second soldier (who died of the mysterious illness) was in, what his job was or where he was working when he became ill."

Skelton said he had not yet been told which units the sick soldiers were attached to or where they might have been before they fell ill. U.S. Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. James Peake has ordered teams of medical experts and epidemiology specialists to retrace the soldiers' steps from the second they set foot in the Middle East.

"They are investigating everything it could possibly be," Skelton said. "I'm confident that with medical science and the technological advances we've made, we will get some positive answers."

Skelton, who serves as the ranking Democrat of the House Armed Services Committee, contacted top officials with the Department of the Army when
he first learned of Neusche's case in late June. Neusche's family could not afford to make the trip to Germany and was told he was in a coma, dying of a flu-like ailment.

Fellow soldiers chipped in for airfare and Skelton expedited their passports and paperwork to get them to Germany in time.

When Neusche's parents arrived in Germany on July 9, the illness had already begun ravaging his muscles, liver and kidneys. Neusche died in an ambulance on the way to another hospital for dialysis.

Cindi and Mark Neusche said that as they watched their son's health get worse, they noticed other soldiers were beginning to fill nearby hospital rooms.

Acute respiratory distress syndrome, which mimics some of the symptoms exhibited by the ailing soldiers usually targets the lungs and is not known to break down other organs. Skelton said the surgeon general has completely ruled out severe acute respiratory distress syndrome, also known as SARS, as the cause.

"For some reason doctors have been able to eliminate SARS as a possible explanation for the soldier's deaths and sickness."

A month long study by doctors and scientists is expected to include a review of the soldiers' medical records and testing on blood and tissue samples in Germany. A separate team will conduct soil, water and air tests in Iraq and Kuwait to determine if a common denominator exists between the suspect cases.

Skelton says he's hanging on to hope for definitive answers -- and soon.

"The deaths of our American soldiers is a tragedy to start with," Skelton said. "They were just doing their duty to their country and to die of a unknown cause just makes it worse.

"It's heart-wrenching that two families have already buried their loved ones, not knowing what killed them. Closure is something we cannot give them until we get answers."