MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- “Gas! Gas! Gas!” is the call to announce an imminent threat of potentially life-threatening nuclear, biological or chemical agents. This shouted alarm declares the air is contaminated and proper counter measures, like donning gas masks and protective clothing, should be taken.
Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, also known as “Suicide Charley” for their valiant defensive triumphs in Guadalcanal, paid a visit to the gas chamber Nov. 22 at the Combat Center’s Range 105 as part of their annual “mask confidence exercise.”
The company made their way via seven-ton trucks to the range at noon. Their mission this day was to refresh their skill in dressing in their Mission Oriented Protective Posture suits and gas masks upon the threat of gas, and moreover, to improve their confidence in wearing and fitting into them, said Cpl. Eric A. Terry, NBC defense specialist, Headquarters and Service Company.
The gas used for the exercise was ortho-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile, commonly known as CS or tear gas. The gas is considered an ammunition since it can cause harm and is used for offensive purposes. Chief Warrant Officer 2 John A. Ferguson, the battalion’s NBC defense specialist officer, briefed the Marines on safety and what was expected throughout the exercise.
The men of Suicide Charley dressed in MOPP suits to MOPP level 4: wearing the jacket and pants, rubber boots, rubber gloves and a gas mask. This protective clothing is worn over their utilities and shields their body from chemical agents that may be in the air.
The Marines then proceeded to the place their expertise would be challenged; the gas chamber.
“It’s training, so you don’t want to crowd the room,” said Terry, a Bethel, Conn., native. “We didn’t want anyone to get claustrophobic because they are already contained by their mask. The purpose of the exercise is to train and gain confidence in their mask.”
The gas chamber has two rooms. In the first room, each squad was briefed on the procedures for the next room. This room contained only a small amount of CS gas in the air, compared to what the Marines would soon face.
“The first room has enough gas to where if your mask was broken or didn’t seal to your face properly, you’d know,” explained Terry.
Every Marine and Sailor gave a hand signal of two thumbs up as a sign that everything was working properly.
As the Marines and Sailors entered the second room, the atmosphere was noticeably different. The room was thickly clouded with CS particles.
“We charged the rooms with about three to four capsules of CS gas,” said Terry. “Each capsule holds less then a gram of the CS gas, or powder. Technically, CS is not a gas. It is a particle. A flame lights up the particles from the capsule and disperses it into the air. That is why gas mask filters work so well. It is much easier to filter particles rather than a gas because it’s an actual particle.
“The only problem with CS is it can deprive Marines and Sailors of oxygen if it is highly concentrated in the room,” he said explaining how concentrated CS, a relatively safe training agent, can be dangerous. “Other than that, all it causes is sneezing, coughing and a burning sensation on the skin and eyes. A little bit of time will cure it. It’s not lethal. It would take intent to hurt someone with it.
“The chamber had left over CS particles in it from other mask confidence exercises. What we did was we swept the floor and walls to stir up and liven all the remains on the ground. This sets a base in the air before any squad enters. It’s a harsh way to enter the chamber.”
The second room is where Marines and Sailors were re-qualified with their masks and MOPP suits. Once the whole squad was in, the Marines and Sailors were given the order to run in place.
“Running in place is to get the blood flowing and assures the Marines and Sailors the mask will work while they’re running,” said Terry.
The Marines and Sailors were then told to shake their head vigorously side-to-side and up and down. This was to make sure the mask had a good clasp on the face and was on tight, said Terry.
The next procedure was to test the drinking tube of the mask. The Marines and Sailors attached their canteen to the mask’s drinking tube and drank from their canteen. If all was functioning properly, they were able to drink and spit out water through the mask.
The final step inside the chamber was to break the seal of the mask by either removing it or sliding two fingers into the mask. After an NBC defense specialist checked the Marine or Sailor, they then re- placed the mask on their faces and cleared the contaminated air from it.
After this final task in the chamber, the Marines and Sailors exited out to the fresh air. Specific instructions were then provided on how to undress from the MOPP suit to avoid contaminating themselves from residual gas. Their masks were the last piece of equipment taken off.
“The training is important because of the threat of chemical and biological agents the enemy is using nowadays,” said Terry. “This exercise was to strictly prove the worth of the gas mask. This is why it is not called the gas chamber exercise; it’s the mask confidence exercise.
“If the alarm was given that there was CS in the air, and you know how your body reacts to it if you breathe it in, then the confidence comes in when you wear this mask, and it proves to you that it keeps you safe from whatever air is outside of you. You won’t cough and tear when that mask is tightly and properly secured on your face,” he said.
When Marines get new masks, they go through the chamber again to make sure that particular mask in their pocket works.
“Marines and Sailors need to know their own mask,” said Terry. “The better they know their mask, the more efficient they can be. In the battlefield, if they were given late warning of gas in the air, Marines can be on the ground with symptoms of nerve agents. If one Marine knows the mask well enough, they can save themselves and then save others by putting on their mask for them.”
Before the Marines deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom 1, gas mask confidence exercises were executed more regularly, said Lance Cpl. Carlos E. Cruz, a 22-year-old rifleman with the company.
“The gas chamber, the gas mask and the MOPP suit were pretty much a routine to us,” he said. “Our command trained us so it would become second nature. It was very important because we were unsure of what we’d run into on the road to Baghdad.”
Cruz has been with Suicide Charley for more than three years and is preparing for his upcoming third deployment to Iraq.
“The threat of NBC warfare has been pretty much lowered, but we will never slack in training for it,” added Cruz, a Chicago native. “It is not difficult training at all. We all talk to each other inside the chamber, making sure we’re all good to go. It is not like boot camp where people are freaking out from the amount of gasses in the air. The training was just to task us with the fundamentals of getting into MOPP level 4 and going through tear gas.
“It is very important training. The enemy is using many different tactics to attack us. We must always know how to work, run and operate in the gas mask and MOPP suit. Through fundamentals, we will continue to beat our enemy no matter what is thrown at us.”