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Biological Warfare Simulation Often Painful : 'Gas Chamber' a Tear-Jerker for 'Boots'

February 05, 1989|MOLLY MOORE | The Washington Post

For the "boots," it is the single most dreaded event in 11 long weeks of mind-numbing, body-grinding dreaded events.

"I can see the letters now: Dear Mommy, They tried to kill me today," chortled a drill instructor as his young troops, coughing and drooling, spilled out of the small, white cinder-block building called the "Gas Chamber."

They've been hearing about it for weeks--the Marine Corps' attempt to prepare you for biological warfare. Now, they're sitting on the bleachers under a moss-draped live oak tree, clutching a black rubber mask, and the drill instructor is laying it on thick.

Nervous Recruits

"I don't want anybody spazzing out in my gas chamber!" said staff Sgt. Frederick Hunt with a growl, giving the nervous recruits detailed instructions on what they're supposed to do for the 10 minutes that they're inside the little white building.

"When I tell you, close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Reach up with your left hand and take the mask off.

"Then we'll start the march around the gas chamber. You're still holding your breath. Your eyes are still closed. I don't want to see no pushin' and shovin' in there.

"The gas is crystallized CS. (Tear gas. Harmless, but temporarily painful.) There's no way to escape it. If you try to put your mask on, we're gonna take it off."

"Now, some are you are gonna say, 'I can't breathe! I can't breathe! My heart stopped!' "

He pauses. Forty pairs of eyes are glued to his face.

'You're Gonna Hurt'

"We're not gonna let you die in there," he shouts. "You're gonna hurt--I'm not gonna lie to you; but nothing is gonna happen to you. You understand?"

"Yes, sir," shout the mouths. "No, sir," whisper the brains.

The door to the white building opens. The first group walks in, masks over face, heart in throat. The other recruits stand outside waiting their turns.

Minutes pass. Then, the sounds of a few muffled coughs. Followed by shouts. Panic-stricken screams. Gagging noises.

"They're like a bunch of caged animals in there," mutters one drill instructor.

The recruits standing in the South Carolina sunshine outside the white building shift nervously. Beads of sweat trickle down faces and necks.

The door slams open.

Tears Pour Down

A great wave of coughing, gagging, slobbering recruits stumbles out. Arms flail. Tears pour down distorted red faces. Throats are on fire. Bodies bend to the ground in pain. Screams echo off the white cinder-block walls.

Drill instructors, yelling to guide the blinded boots, lead the screeching mass into an open field. The gas is on their hands, in their clothes, still seeping into their burning nostrils.

"Don't touch your face!" Hunt orders. "It'll only make it worse."

Husky grown men are reduced to blubbering children.

"You're not dying!" comforts Hunt.

They clearly need to be reminded.

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