Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Gas Mask 101

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Gas Mask 101

Article excerpt

Today, we got our NBC gear. No, it doesn't involve Tom Brokaw. In military-speak, NBC stands for nuclear, biological, chemical.

First we are given a large heavy-duty plastic bag, into which we put a gas mask, an NBC suit, rubber boots, rubber gloves, and a Magic Marker-sized auto-injector filled with nerve agent antidote. Then, we haul our sacks over the hotel's tennis courts for training.

Instructors divide the group of journalists into groups of a dozen or so and help us assemble our gas masks. Sgt. Stephen Cegielski of Milwaukee screws an air canister onto my mask. Then he snaps in the lenses - I have the options of tinted or clear. Does it matter? I choose clear. Sgt. Cegielski places a rubber covering over the mask and tucks it around the lenses and valves.

The mask and autoinjector go into a pouch slung around my waist.

The mask looks significantly more substantial than the Chinese models peddled in Kuwait City. Those masks are only useful for 30 minutes. I ask the sergeant how long these masks last. His answer is pedantic, but reassuring. The masks are good for 120 days of casual use, 45 days of continual use, or through six washings.

These aren't trivial details. When touring bunkers at Ali Al Salem Air Base, one of the Seabees shared the conventional wisdom on Saddam Hussein's rocket target priorities. One: Israel. Two: Al Jaber. Three: Al Salem. He was happy to be third.

Using a gas mask isn't as simple as strapping it over your face. And military trainers only give you nine seconds to get it on, so the maneuvers are carefully scripted. Otherwise, you'll experience what the World War I poet Wilfred Owen described as "an ecstasy of fumbling."

The drill begins.

"GAS! GAS! GAS!" bellows the sergeant.

Stop breathing. That's the first thing.

Using your left hand, open the pouch slung around your waist. With your right hand, grab the mask, place it under your chin and rock the lens area forward onto your face.

So far, so good. Not too complicated.

Then I get hung up. …

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