"Since OPERATION Iraqi Freedom began in 2003, more than 700 US soldiers have been infected or colonized with Acinetobacter baumannii. A significant number of additional cases have been found in the Canadian and British armed forces, and among wounded Iraqi civilians. The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology has recorded seven deaths caused by the bacteria in US hospitals along the evacuation chain. Four were unlucky civilians who picked up the bug at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, while undergoing treatment for other life-threatening conditions. Another was a 63-year-old woman, also chronically ill, who shared a ward at Landstuhl with infected coalition troops.
Behind the scenes, the spread of a pathogen that targets wounded GIs has triggered broad reforms in both combat medical care and the Pentagon's networks for tracking bacterial threats within the ranks. Interviews with current and former military physicians, recent articles in medical journals, and internal reports reveal that the Department of Defense has been waging a secret war within the larger mission in Iraq and Afghanistan - a war against antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
As the bacteria spread through hospitals in the US and Europe, the DOD worked overtime to keep a lid on the rumors. In a PowerPoint presentation about acinetobacter and pneumonia delivered at the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, a slide labeled "How to handle the press" read: "Don't lie. Don't obfuscate. Don't tell them any more than you absolutely have to."
Quietly, in spring 2004, a group of military doctors, infectious-disease specialists, and microbiologists decided to find out what was really going on with this bug. "My concern was that we were changing the bacterial environment in our hospitals, and I wasn't seeing a whole lot being done about it," says Tim Endy, the former communicable-disease research director at Walter Reed. "And now there were infections in patients who had never been to Iraq. The potential consequences to health care and to the cost of health care are huge."