One Soldier's Lasting Memories Of Exposure To Sarin Gas

Apr 28, 2017
Originally published on April 28, 2017 12:23 pm

When Michael Yandell was 19 years old he was serving in the U.S. Army as a bomb disposal technician.

One morning in May 2004 he was on a routine mission in Iraq to clear explosive devices.

"We got a call very early in the morning. There'd been an explosion and there was a old rusted projectile in the middle of the road," Yandell says.

After seeing the projectile, Yandell says he picked it up, put it in the truck and started driving, with his team leader beside him.

"We both had these crushing headaches, and you know, we're feeling disoriented, feeling confused even," Yandell says. "When we get back to the camp, I remember I was looking in this mirror and couldn't see the pupils in my eyes — the calling card of a nerve agent exposure — and they told us to go to the clinic immediately."

Yandell and his team had come in contact with sarin, the same nerve agent that was used in the deadly attack in Syria earlier this month. Sarin is a chemical weapon that is colorless and odorless and it was first developed as an insecticide in Germany before being used in warfare.

"We stripped down and they helped us shower because we were both having a hard time seeing and hard time really just using our faculties," he says. "I had a lot of fear and anxiety, but I didn't want to give voice to those fears because you don't want to be unfit to serve, and to be a good soldier, I needed to be in control. What the sarin proved to me is that I had no control and that's a hard truth to come to terms with."

It's been almost 13 years since that day, but Yandell and his wife, Amy, don't talk about it often, though his exposure has had lasting effects.

"I feel every day a wound in you and not knowing how to fix it, not being your confidante when it comes to these things is hard because I love you and I want to help," Amy says to Michael. "I'm sorry this happened to you."

He thanks Amy, but also says that in the grand scheme of things he was very fortunate compared to many other people.

"These weapons exist. They're manufactured, used," he says. "Those decisions — they're made by people who don't ever encounter the reality. And the people that do encounter it — men and women and children — they don't have any say."

Yandell later received a Purple Heart for his injuries from the exposure to sarin and is now a doctoral candidate studying theology at Emory University.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It is Friday, when we hear conversations from StoryCorps. Often in those interviews, people revisit the moments that shaped their lives. For Michael Yandell, the moment came one morning in 2004. He was 19, serving in the United States Army as a bomb disposal technician in Iraq, when he was exposed to the nerve agent sarin, the same gas that was used in an attack in Syria earlier this month, it is believed. Michael's is one of the first documented cases of an American soldier being exposed to sarin on the battlefield. He recently came to StoryCorps with his wife Amy to remember that day.

MICHAEL YANDELL: We got a call very early in the morning. There had been an explosion, and there was a old, rusted projectile in the middle of the road. I picked it up, put it in the truck. I'm driving, and my team leader's beside me. And we both had these crushing headaches. And, you know, we're feeling disoriented, feeling confused even. When we get back to the camp, I remember I was looking in this mirror and I couldn't see the pupils in my eyes, the calling card of nerve agent exposure. And they told us to go to the clinic immediately. We stripped down, and they helped us shower because we were both having a hard time seeing and a hard time really just using our faculties. You know, I had a lot of fear and anxiety. But I didn't want to give voice to those fears because you don't want to be unfit to serve. And to be a good soldier, I needed to be in control. And what the sarin proved to me is that I had no control, and that's a hard truth to come to terms with.

How do you feel about me talking about it?

AMY YANDELL: Well, as we both know, you don't talk about this a lot. But I feel, every day, a wound in you. And not knowing how to fix it, not being your confidant when it comes to these things is hard because I love you, and I want to help. And I'm sorry this happened to you.

M. YANDELL: Thank you. But in the scheme of things, I was very fortunate compared to many other people. These weapons exist. They're manufactured, used. Those decisions, they're made by people that don't ever encounter the reality. And the people that do encounter it - men and women and children - they don't have any say.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS ZABRISKIE'S "JOHN STOCKTON SLOW DRAG")

INSKEEP: Michael and Amy Michael Yandell at StoryCorps in Atlanta. Michael received a Purple Heart for his injuries and is now a doctoral candidate in theology at Emory University. Their interview will be archived in the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS ZABRISKIE'S "JOHN STOCKTON SLOW DRAG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.