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As Long as We Remember...

October 22, 2010

BW Agents, Olives & Lost Colleagues

Norman M. Covert

Forgive this writer for ignoring the election catfights in order to pay homage to friends and colleagues who have crossed the “bar,” – paraphrasing Alfred Lord Tennyson – their missions complete.


We sadly bade farewell in recent weeks to: Myer Chertoff, 93; William C. Patrick, III, 84; and George W. Sheetenhelm, 84. They were Fort Detrick associates, each bearing impeccable personal and professional credentials.


Mr. Patrick, oft described as one of America’s “leading bio-warriors,” died Oct 1, 2010. His health had been failing for nearly a decade, but not his mind.


He took me under his wing almost from the moment I arrived at Fort Detrick in 1977. I had much to learn and understand – Mr. Patrick told me so. What a lucky happenstance for me. We worked together on a number of international media projects – before and after his and my retirement.


Mr. Patrick came to mind while reading Hagerstown’s The Herald-Mail coverage of events in Boonsboro and Sharpsburg. Local veterans and families honored local sailors killed in the U.S.S. Cole attack in Yemen October 12, 2000. Seaman Craig Bryan Wibberly, 19, of Williamsport, and Fireman Patrick Roy, 19, of Keedysville were among the 17 killed and 39 wounded that day.


Mr. Patrick and I put together a briefing in 1992 that included news footage illustrating his notion that U. S. Navy warships were vulnerable to biological attack.


The White House, The Congress, Pentagon experts and other notables weren’t convinced that Middle Eastern terrorists using small boats could deliver biological warfare agents with fogging devices. The massive amounts of agent could penetrate access holes, debilitate and/or kill crews. Camp Detrick proved the hypothesis in 1950s stimulant tests on ships in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.


Terrorists in small boats attacked the U.S.S. Cole a decade ago using improvised explosive devices (IED). The key, Mr. Patrick opined, was the weapons platform – skiffs or runabouts. The ship’s watch, he said, would not consider the boats a threat. He was the soothsayer.


Mr. Patrick, a native of South Carolina and graduate of the University of South Carolina and the University of Tennessee, came to Fort Detrick in 1951 with degrees in microbiology and biochemistry.


He stuck to the notion of biological warfare as a poor man’s weapon of mass destruction. He and his colleagues on the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) first inspected suspected biological warfare production facilities in Iraq in 1991. Most still contend Saddam Hussein had fully capable bio-weapons production facilities prior to the United Nations invasion.


Mr. Patrick knew that bio-weapons grade material was easily concealed and could be destroyed in a couple hours of decontamination. Mr. Patrick also was convinced of Saddam Hussein’s sleight of hand, transferring munitions and materiel to Syria without detection.


As Product Development Division chief of the Bio-warfare Laboratories for many years, he was a major player in the mass production of anthrax, other virulent and stimulant agents, the former earmarked as bio-munitions agents. He spent many hours in the Eight-Ball, the one-million liter test sphere at Camp Detrick, as well as Building 470, the pilot plant – call it The Anthrax Hotel.”


Mr. Patrick was retired in 1986 from the U. S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) and later worked through his own consulting firm with contract agencies who performed extramural research in conjunction with the Department of Defense.


His credentials include his “debriefing” of Ken Alibek, who headed the former Soviet Union’s massive biological warfare programs. They remained colleagues, he an American patriot, Dr. Alibek, an unrepentant Soviet operative.


I was once invited to a private gathering at Mr. Patrick’s home, where he proffered what he claimed was the perfect wedding of Gin, Vermouth and ice, shaken and poured in a long stem Martini Glass. I enjoyed the company and the libation.


I called him “Bill Pseudomonas” and we never agreed which blend of Gin was most affable. However, with his passing, I conceded the point, concocting his version of the beverage and toasted the memory of my friend and colleague.


“The flood may bear me far,” Tennyson scribed, “I hope to see my Pilot face to face When I have crossed the bar….”


I tossed in an olive for good measure, friend Bill!


Myer Chertoff died Sept. 17, 2010. His work as a chemical engineer at Camp and Fort Detrick preceded my arrival in Frederick. Like Mr. Patrick, Mr. Chertoff was a willing subject of my numerous inquiries about the history and activities of the post’s research and development.


I also crossed paths with him often at community events, where he was active in a number of civic groups, including the Boy Scouts of Troop 799, Fort Detrick. He also was a trustee at the former Monocacy Federal Credit Union, where he met and greeted old and new post personnel.


The son of immigrants, Mr. Chertoff was born in Rochester, N.Y. He was a D-Day veteran and was a willing participant in Frederick’s countywide veteran’s oral history project.


Among the real characters I met at Fort Detrick was George W. Sheetenhelm, who died Aug. 24, 2010, at Frederick Memorial Hospital. He was primarily one of the truck drivers in the Transportation Division spanning both the old and new programs. After retirement he collected a crop of children who rode his school bus for many years. They loved him.


It was always a joy to speak with him. All it took was one question and he could give a 30-minute dissertation of his memories of trucking. Mr. Sheetenhelm was a key element in the numerous open air tests undertaken by various divisions of Camp Detrick. He drove stimulant and live agents as far south as Florida, throughout the Eastern Seaboard.


“They can talk all they want,” he told me once, “about the dangerous stuff used in the tests, but I never got sick from anything. I trucked containers full of defoliant agent, helped unload it, spilled it on me … never had a problem.”


I’m not certain what ultimately took Mr. Sheetenhelm’s life, but he was extremely proud of everything and every project in which he took part at Camp Detrick.


I last saw him at the gas station across from Frederick Memorial Hospital. He was visiting a friend and I asked about his Santa Claus suit that was his alter ego. He was always joyous; happy; up; enthusiastic; a twinkle in his eye. I’m certain that’s how he went “Home.”


In the words of Clement C. Moore: “…laying his finger aside of his nose, And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose….”


Happy Christmas, my friend.


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