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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Marines Deploy Combat Chickens in Kuwait

The birds serve as a low-tech system to warn troops of biological or chemical attack by Iraq.

March 07, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP GRIZZLY, Kuwait — No one would dare call Geraldine the chicken of the sea.

The U.S. military has spent millions of dollars perfecting high-technology devices to detect even a whiff of certain kinds of chemical or biological agents and to develop protective suits for troops. Marines have found a low-tech supplement.

Enter Geraldine of Arabia, part of a squad of combat chickens. They are the updated version of the age-old strategy used by coal miners who carried caged canaries to detect poisonous gas. Since canaries are scarce here, and chickens are plentiful, the military has adopted what Marines archly call the Foster Farms Takes Arms game plan.

And so Geraldine sits in her tiny cage outside the command post. Her sister chickens are in similar billets wherever there are Western troops.

If a nerve agent, for example, is present in the air, ideally a high-pitched horn attached to an electronic sensor will blare automatically. Marines will don suits and masks, prepare to inject themselves with antidote, and, in some cases, be decontaminated with a thorough dousing of water.

Specialists from the U.S., German and Czech militaries are working together to detect any use of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons and to alert troops immediately.

Geraldine and the other chickens are a backup system, what the military calls a "redundancy." Although experts at the Pentagon doubt the scientific validity of using chickens as an early-warning system, troops here say the pullets increase their confidence.

"It's a comfort zone kind of thing," said Cpl. Thomas Rivel, 23, of Upper Darby, Pa., " a nuclear, biological and chemical weapons specialist at Camp Grizzly. "If you watch the chicken and it starts dancing around, croaking and dying, you know Saddam is up to something."

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