On Dec. 2, 2005, three HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters hovered over the northern end of Camp Taji, Iraq, as a nine-man pararescue team on the ground moved toward rows of identical white warehouses during a training exercise. One of the pararescuemen doubled over and vomited, then fell to one knee. Two airmen moved to assist the man, dragging him up by his armpits.
In one of the helicopters, a flight engineer, Staff Sgt. Annette Nellis, started coughing. Her skin began feeling itchy all over. Bile shot up from her stomach into her mouth. Just minutes into the operation, an aerial machine-gunner in another Pave Hawk who was also suddenly experiencing unusual symptoms called in a Code Four — the signal that a helicopter had been hit by a chemical-weapon agent. The pilot pushed into a sharp dive to the ground. The other two Pave Hawks from the 64th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron landed in quick succession, loaded the remaining six airmen as quickly as they could and departed Taji, which before 1991 was a major chemical-weapons storage area. Nellis felt her upper respiratory tract closing up, making it difficult to breathe.
The team’s arrival at Balad Air Base north of Baghdad marked the start of years of medical problems and military negligence for Nellis and three other members of the combat search-and-rescue team. Today they belong to a cohort of American service members who were exposed to chemical agents or suffered exposure symptoms while deployed to Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The New York Times first reported on these chemical-warfare casualties in a 2014 investigation that showed how the military failed to follow its own medical processes or to maintain records for most of the exposed troops.