Through the gas mask

By Noelle Wiehe
U.S. Army Cadet Command Public Affairs

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – Intertwined with building Cadets’ confidence and camaraderie is an emphasis upon combat readiness. At the gas chambers, however, Cadets build confidence by experiencing the consequence of failure in their equipment.

Cadets of 1st Regiment trudge up a hill in full gear as part of the Cobalt Challenge at the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear training facility as part of the Leader Development and Assessment Course at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. U.S. Army photo by Al Zdarsky

“We have to train all of our Soldiers on defense against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks,” said contractor Joe McCluskey, executive officer for the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) training facility. “Hopefully we never have to really use it, but we have to be prepared for it.”

Through this situational training, Cadets are exposed to ortho-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile, or CS tear gas. The gas is an irritant which causes a profuse flow of tears, extreme irritation of the skin and upper respiratory irritation.

Throughout history, chemical warfare has always been a concern. While brief exposure does not typically kill, it can disorient a Soldier for several minutes, making them unable to perform in combat. The military has seen its share of chemical warfare throughout history, Torbert said. In World War I chlorine gas was used to kill thousands; in World War II the Germans used specially developed gassing facilities in attempts to wipe out an entire race during the Holocaust. In modern day warfare, the Iranian and Iraqi militaries used mustard gas to attack their own people.

“The possibility of chemical warfare is very real,” said Master Sgt. Mark Torbert of CBRN committee. “As a result of that, it is very important for Cadets to understand and have confidence in their equipment.”

While the most infamous station of CBRN is the gas chamber, there are several other important facets of the training. First, Cadets are briefed on safety, identification procedures and the military history of chemical warfare. They are also outfitted with protective gear including camouflage pants, hooded jackets, masks and gloves so that no area of their skin is exposed. This fully-covered state is referred to as Mission Oriented Protected Posture level four (MOPP-4).

Cadets enter a training area where they notice tell-tale signs of a deadly threat: fake dead birds lie on the ground in numbers, an adversary walks around in full chemical gear and a bucket of an unknown liquid solution is visible.

“Hopefully they catch on that they need to get into full chemical suit quickly,” McCluskey said. Traditionally, Cadets must don their masks within nine seconds or are considered non-mission capable.

Cadets and their gear are put to the test when they go through the Cobalt Challenge. In MOPP-4, Cadets run about 150 yards uphill through a wooded area. Heart rates climb, yet Cadets find they can still breathe in the heavy mask. After entering a darkly-lit tent, they see only masked cadre and a can of tear gas brewing in the middle of the facility. Two squads line the walls of the tent, which is filled with a smoky haze.

“They see smoke in the air, but the suit is protecting them, so they have no idea what it actually is,” said McCluskey. ”It’s just smoke, right?”

The experience doesn’t seem too bad so far. Cadre order Cadets to do jumping-jacks and knee benders. One cadre member even has Cadets do the “hokey pokey” to intensify their breathing. The mask is still protecting them, no effects are felt and the equipment proves reliable.

Seventh Regiment Cadets at the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) training site at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. U.S. Army photo by Jesse Beals

In pairs, Cadets are instructed to remove the hood from each other’s equipment. If their skin is moist, they’ll feel what some describe as bad sunburn on the back of their necks. Cadre stand in front of the Cadets and prompt them to remove their masks one-by-one. To get the Cadets to breathe in the gas they are told to recite their name, their major and their college. Some Cadets are even asked to sing their favorite song. Typically, Cadets do not last longer than 15 seconds without their masks, but occasionally one will come through who seeks bragging rights.

Seventh Regiment Cadet Bryan Joosse of Marquette University was last to go in his squad and was convinced he could do push-ups once his mask came off.

“The first five were not bad and then it got worse with every next breath,” Joosse said.

He completed a total of 26 push-ups before the gas was too much to take and he vacated the tent.

As Cadets stand in the gas, exposed to the chemicals, their eyes automatically shut, their sinuses completely drain and their faces feel as if they are on fire. They instinctively reach up to rub their eyes but cadre order them not to, holding them in the tent just a few seconds longer. Seventh Regiment Cadet Tyran Askew of Virginia State University jumped up and down as the cadre told him to sing a song, but that didn’t help distract him from the burning sensation engulfing his body.

Askew could only get out a short “La La La” before a coughing fit set him free from the chamber.

Outside the tent, Cadets realize they are not free from the effects of the gas. They are told to “flap their wings,” allowing oxygen to neutralize the gas and virtually heal them. Medics are on sight, but Cadets find relief from the gas within two to three minutes of exiting the contaminated area. They spend those minutes amongst other healing Cadets walking in the designated “circle of snot” until they are able to open their eyes.

“There are two main facts of life that pertain to them as commissioned Officers: complete the mission and take care of the Soldiers,” said Lt. Col. Hazelwood, officer in charge of the CBRN committee. “This training is important because it will help them take care of the Soldiers and will enable them to complete the mission.”

Cadets leave CBRN with tear-stained cheeks and cleared nasal passages, but most importantly with confidence in their equipment’s ability to keep them mission-capable and able to lead Soldiers.

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