Exploring what’s on the other side!

The Gas Chamber

We were marched out to a clearing in the woods. There before us stood a non-descript building. It was the size of a modest ranch house, maybe half that or somewhere in between.

There’s nothing like the fear of the unknown unless the fear is known.

We went from bad to worse as soon as we were told, “At ease!”

“Welcome to the gas chamber!” shouted a drill sergeant.

Even the toughest wore faces of uncertainty.

Quickly, the ranks filled with a murmur of questions and answers: “Do they really gas us? …With what? …How bad is it?”

One group at a time put on their MOPP gear to prepare to enter. MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) is a head-to-toe protective gear used in the Army in toxic environments such as chemical warfare. It includes gloves, pants, jacket, and gas mask with hood. We had spent hours in training to get it pulled over our BDUs (Battle Dress Uniforms) in seconds flat once a signal was given. Sometimes we wore it for hours in the blistering, August, South Carolina heat. Usually, when we were about to pass out, we got the all-clear sign.

We were in a line parallel to the rear of the building so those of us in the back of the line could see the first group coming out, one by one, victims. Some yelled, a couple puked, but most just groaned and flapped their arms in the air as tears streamed from their burning eyes. With this haunting imagery set against the thick woods, it was like watching a horror movie unfold. Anyway, it begged the question; would it be better to go in oblivious to the outcome or see the agony of those going first?

Some wondered, what’s the purpose of having to go through this? I figured the answer was probably so we’d understand just how real this threat was in modern warfare. Granted, the gas used in training was not life-threatening, but it did make your skin and eyes feel like they were burning up.

“Forward, ma-a-a-a-rch!”

I entered with my group, in full MOPP gear. The first thing that went through my mind was that I hoped every zipper and fastener was sealed properly. We stood in three different lines and one-by-one walked up to a drill sergeant. I was struck by how clear it was inside. It looked plain and harmless. I thought, seriously, how bad could it be?

The first three were ordered to remove their gas masks then walk out the door. It was funny watching them turn stupid all of a sudden. They bumped this way and that way, feeling in front of them as if they were trying to escape a dark room. Of the sets of three, there was usually one who seemed to have little trouble, probably because he pre-planned his route. Then there was one who probably tried to pre-plan but found it more difficult to carry out. And the typical third one never even contemplated it, with fear probably being his foremost thought. One, in particular, actually bumbled around, bumped back into a drill sergeant, and walked into the corner of the room where there was no door to escape.

It was excruciating to watch this. Many of us, I included, wanted to break rank and lead him back in the right direction. The drill sergeants seemed to be enjoying this inept soldier’s “malfunctioning” moment. Finally, even they showed mercy and walked him out with assistance.

When it was my turn, I had already pre-counted the number of steps to the door and had an idea of what angle I needed to take to find it. As soon as I unmasked, the searing pain tore into me. My skin was burning from the get-go. Even closed, my eyes felt like they were incinerated to nothing. I held my breath but the scalding was through and through. I had no idea of how many pre-counted steps or where in this fiery pit of hell I’d find the door. But, I did – and not a moment too soon!

When I exited, I knew it because the fresh air was anything but. I flapped my arms and walked and walked, feeling fried and nauseous. Through my gasping, wheezing and choking, soon I returned back to normal, except for one thing – I had been gassed.

It was a rite of passage. We sat in the grass, later, eating lunch, already reminiscing about our “war” stories.

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel