Medics Clear Rats From Saddam Hussein’s Bunker

By Maj. Bobby Hart, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

BAGHDAD, Dec. 26, 2006 – It was a scene straight from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” or maybe “Willard.” American soldiers walking through a dimly lit, underground command bunker once used by a brutal dictator, now filled with hundreds of rats. Throw in a snake or two, and you have the perfect setting for a horror movie.
But it was not a movie.

Soldiers of the 3rd Medical Command, Fort Gillem, Ga., found themselves in just such an environment when they went to investigate a potential rat infestation.

Civilians on a forward operating base near Baghdad reported they had seen increasing numbers of rodents in the area surrounding what was known locally as Saddam Hussein’s presidential bunker — a massive, two-level, network of tunnels and rooms estimated to be able to support upwards of 100 people for several months.

The bunker included meeting rooms, a kitchen, huge underground generators, restrooms, showers, private living quarters and rats. Lots and lots of rats.

Army Lt. Col. Van Sherwood, a 3rd MEDCOM preventive medicine specialist, said he had seen rat infestations before, but nothing compared to what he saw when he pulled open the doors and entered Saddam’s bunker.

“We saw some rats around the entrance when we walked up with our lights,” said Sherwood, a Gainesville, Fla., native and graduate of the University of Florida, who currently works at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C. “Once we opened the doors and walked in, it was like rat heaven.”

Sherwood said American Special Forces troops had taken over the bunker and used them for operations and storage until January 2006. When they left, they left behind pallets of military food rations and water.

“I really had no preconceived idea of what to expect when I heard they had a rat problem,” Sherwood said. “I’ve been called out on these types of cases before, and most of the time, they are pretty mundane. For most people, one or two rats can be an infestation. As soon as we opened the doors, you could see rats scurrying down the corridors and could smell the rat urine. I knew then there were a lot of rats there.”

The rats had moved in to take over the bunker when the American soldiers left and the limited access hindered the entry of predators. The rats had a secure nesting area with a high-calorie, high-protein food source and water. A healthy female rat is capable of producing a brood of around a dozen offspring monthly. It didn’t take long for the rat population to reach epidemic proportions.

Until Sherwood and his rat patrol arrived, about the only thing the rats had to worry about was the snakes — one which was tentatively identified as a sand boa estimated to be at least five to six feet long.

“We knew we had to get rid of the rats some way, but it wasn’t as easy as it might seem,” he said. “There were so many cracks and crevices that they could easily escape the bunker and go to ground level, where there were hundreds of rodent burrows that would provide them harborage.”

Sherwood said the last thing he wanted to do was to take away the food supply and water or do anything that would drive the rats out of the bunker to the base camps to forage for their next meal.

The rats had devoured most of the military rations -- they ate everything but the salt and pepper and Tabasco sauce -- and shredded everything else except the spoons to use for nesting material. The cases looked intact, except for one or two small holes in each.

“I think that was the most surprising thing,” Sherwood said. “The boxes looked fine, but when you picked them up they were empty except for the ones that had nests built in them.”

Another surprising thing was the consistency with which the rats emptied the water bottles, which were almost all chewed through at the same height on the bottle with the holes all being very similar in size.

Sherwood decided to place poison near the now-empty pallets, which still contained ample food for the thriving rodent population, to rid the area of the problem. He said after placing the poison, his team returned and picked up dead adult rats by the hundreds and estimated many more may have died in their nests or in underground burrows.

The body count of the dead rats did lead Sherwood to believe the problem had been solved and shouldn’t happen again.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Once we got rid of the population and cleaned out the food and water, there was nothing down there that would make a rat want to go there.”