FORT SILL, Okla. (June 15, 2017) -- Note: This is the third in a series following six trainees in the Army National Guard's Split Option Program as they take basic combat training in C Battery, 1st Battalion, 79th Field Artillery, here.

The gas chamber.

Everyone who goes through basic combat training has "fond" memories of this trial by fire. At least it seems like fire. Burning your face, eyes, throat, lungs. But the agony lasts just a few minutes, then you can laugh about it. A shared experience of survival. Building a team. Army strong.

June 5 was Day 13 of C Battery, 1st Battalion, 79th Field Artillery's training. The morning was spent learning how to protect themselves against a chemical/biological hazard. Trainees were taught how to put on the gas mask, how to clean their skin and masks after exposure, how to test unknown substances with a paper that turns different colors, and how to carry casualties.

Even though it was only 9 a.m. on a warm, sunny Monday, many heads nodded and eyes drooped. Drill sergeants and instructors shouted at them several times, "Stay awake!"

Among them were six Split Option Program National Guard trainees who had conquered Treadwell Tower on Day 8 (see June 8 Tribune.) Once they donned their gas masks, it was impossible to tell who was who. But they were all there: Pfc. Rachel Dibbins, Pfc. Cailin Cinnamon, and privates Kylie DeLoach, Shane McDonald, Tyler LeBlanc, DeJon Riley, along with 207 others prepared to inflict on themselves a sample of the horrors of riots or war.

After the preparations and practice drills, the trainees sat on the ground and downed MREs. One Soldier dug out a warm meat-like substance from the plastic package and dabbed it on a tortilla shell that came out of another plastic packet. Steam wafted from other bags as the they warmed and devoured their meals.

Then the Soldiers assembled on the bleachers under the cool trees for a final briefing. The drill sergeants and instructors seemed to enjoy this part, scaring the trainees with vivid descriptions of exposure to the CS nerve gas (aka tear gas) they would soon face in the gas chamber. One asked who had milk that morning. Many raised their hands. He laughed, saying they were going to regret it.

They were told to remove all their uniform patches, to make sure the women did not have metal hair clips, and that nobody wore contact lenses in the gas chamber.

Then they marched one group at a time to the building where capsules of orange powder the color of turmeric were burned to release their toxic fumes. They lined up toe to heel outside, and Drill Sergeant (Staff Sgt.) John Deserio asked one trainee if he'd ever been close to death before. The trainee nodded and said, "Yes, drill sergeant."

"Well you're going to have that sensation again," he said with just a hint of glee. After a pause, he walked down the line. "Breathe normal, trainees. Breathe normal, and you'll be just fine," he said. "Until the mask comes off. Then real, real deep breaths."

They soon entered the "cold" room where a weak cloud of gas gave them a chance to test their masks to be sure they had a good seal. Then they moved into the "hot" room where they removed their masks and were exposed to the full effect of the gas.

It took only 15 seconds, and they came out hugging the wall, coughing, gasping, dripping mucus and saliva, spitting, groaning, eyes red with tears. A few even upchucked, though it is not known if it was due to milk for breakfast.

"Don't touch your face!" yelled the drill sergeants. "Open your eyes! OPEN YOUR EYES! Flap your arms!" They were watched to be sure they were breathing OK and that nobody fainted. Then they flapped their arms and marched down the trail to air out their clothes and faces before sitting on the bleachers again.

Andre Petersen, the videographer from Leonard's Studio, the company that documents each basic training cycle with video and still photography, made sure he got every face in all its tragic glory. He even ducked inside the hot room a couple of times, holding his breath and closing his eyes just long enough to get a few images.

He said the gas burns his face, but it otherwise doesn't bother him much.

The exercise is meant to give the trainees confidence in their protective equipment, and to let them know what tear gas feels like. Even people outside the building found noses tickling and eyes burning slightly from escaping fumes. Exposure to oxygen is the quickest way to dissipate the effects, so the trainees also learned to trust their drill sergeants who told them to ignore their desire to rub their eyes or keep them closed.

When the last group was back and pretty much recovered, the drill sergeants and the instructors who tormented the Soldiers in the chamber teased them by describing how so-and-so looked or acted. They all laughed back, knowing this would be a story to tell their children one day.
A day of infamy, and a day of victory for Soldiers who may someday need to face the real thing.