The Chamber

Chapter 15: Trust your Gas Mask

“After today, you will love your gas mask.”

One of the requirements in order to graduate basic training was to go through a gas chamber exercise.  This exercise was necessary in order to build trust between you and your equipment.

So on a glorious morning, we marched out to the gas chamber in the neck of the woods.  After about 5 miles of marching, we arrived at the site.  We grounded our gear and moved into a shed for a briefing on the day’s exercise.

“You will all be introduced to CS Gas, a form of riot control.  If any of you have been sprayed by mace, this is 10 times as worse.  The only people who will be have tolerance towards this are those who were once Crystal Meth addicts.”

So after the boring briefing, we all walked over to the gas chamber.  As we got closer and closer, we experienced tearing and coughing.  At first, the coughing was really subtle.  None of us were really thinking about it until EVERYONE started coughing and tearing.  We weren’t even inside the gas chamber yet, and here we were outside in the open air, choking up.  I put my gas mask on, and immediately started to feel better.

Unfortunately there were some claustrophobic individuals who panicked inside their gas mask.  You couldn’t breath as much air in while wearing the mask.  These individuals began hyperventilating.  One of my friends, Alvarez, was in bad shape.  He wanted to take his gas mask off, but I told him he should get used to it now before we actually enter the chamber.

If you have ever seen or read the book “All Quiet on the Western Front”, there is a part of the book where one of the younger soldiers doesn’t put his gas mask on.  Of course, he dies from breathing in the agent.  You can’t die from breathing in this concentration of CS gas unless you are exposed to it over a longer period of time.  It suffocates you very slowly.

After about half an hour of waiting in line, it was our turn.  Alvarez was right in front of me, and this female, Herrin, was behind me.  We march into the gas chamber with our gas masks on, tightened, and ready to go.  Immediately my neck started to burn.  All male soldiers are required to shave everyday.  It was like rubbing salt into your cuts.

All of a sudden I heard some muffled yelling next to me, as Herrin panicked to fix her gas mask.  Apparently it didn’t fit properly around her head, thus CS gas entered freely into her gas mask.  Her eyes were pouring out water, and she entered a very rapid coughing fit.  The drill sergeants took her outside of the gas chamber, fixed her gas mask, and put her in the back of the line again.

After about a minute of sitting in the gas chamber, the drill sergeants continued with the exercise.

“Soldiers, when directed, take off your gas mask, recite your name, rank, and social security number, then put your gas mask on and clear it.”

Alvarez went first.  He took off his gas mask, but forgot to take a big breath of air first.  He said his name, rank, but then couldn’t speak anymore.  He inhaled the CS gas and immediately started coughing.  He was coughing so hard, he couldn’t finish saying his social security number.  But the drill sergeants were ruthless.

“FINISH YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER.  YOU ARE NOT GOING TO PUT THAT MASK BACK ON UNTIL YOU DO THAT.”

After about 10 more seconds of suffering,  he managed to spit the last few numbers out and put his gas mask on.  Then, it was my turn.  I didn’t make the same mistake.  I took a big breath of air.

“Drill Sergeant, John Doe Smith, Private First Class, XXX-XX-XXXX.”

I put the mask back on and began clearing it.  However, since I took the gas mask off in the chamber, some gas was still trapped inside the mask.  I coughed and teared inside the gas mask, and immediately felt a surge of fear, thinking I was going to drown in my own fluid.  After about 3 minutes of clearing the gas mask, I finally felt a little better.

Alvarez on the other hand was in horrible shape.  He couldn’t see, and was on the verge of a claustrophobic meltdown.  I comforted him, distracting myself from my own misery so I wouldn’t suffer the same fate.

But then, it was time for the final phase of the exercise.

“Soldiers, now you will remove your gas mask, and while keeping your eyes OPEN, recite the Soldier’s Creed.  None of you are going anywhere until you finish reciting it.”

Needless to say, two lines into the Creed, I began choking and leaking fluid from my nose, ears, and mouth.  After about a minute of suffering, they let us go outside.  Alvarez was so disoriented, he was walking in circles because he couldn’t find the exit out of the gas chamber.  I grabbed him and ran out of the hell hole.

After about 10 minutes of airing outside in the South Carolina woods, I felt a lot better.  I had been sick with a cold, but refused to go on sick call for fear of being “recycled” (basically start basic training over).  All the CS gas had cleared my sinuses.  I guess, in a rather cruel way, I felt some temporary relief.  Not only because my sinuses were cleared, but because I would never have to be gassed again.  At least for another year.

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