Training reduces Lewis-McChord soldiers to tears

JBLM exposes troops to the pressure of donning gas masks in a room full of toxic air

Staff writerMarch 13, 2014 

Watery-eyed soldiers poured out of a Joint Base Lewis-McChord gas chamber coughing and cursing until they could clear their lungs.

“Terrible,” said Spc. Errol Lucas

“I’m dying, I’m dying,” one of his teammates said with a laugh to show he was fine.

“I couldn’t breathe,” vented Staff Sgt. Court Canterbury.

Those three and about 75 others passed through the chamber Thursday morning in a remote part of the base. They endured an uncomfortable Army test lasting less than two minutes in which soldiers practice donning gas masks in an environment affected by a chemical attack.

It’s a way to reacquaint soldiers in Lewis-McChord’s 14th Engineer Battalion with the basics of preparing for chemical warfare. For the past decade, its soldiers have been busy with repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, where they cleared roads of deadly mines.

The idea behind the training is that a soldier will feel the burn of CS gas, put on a mask and then breathe clean air.

“That way soldiers feel more confident if they’re ever in a chemical environment” because they’ll know their equipment works, Capt. Marie Mikasa said.

Soldiers also took a series of short classes in the field about other tools they can use to protect themselves against chemical weapons, such as tests that show when dangerous chemicals appear in the atmosphere around them.

“It’s a good refresher,” said Lucas, 22.

He had not done much chemical weapons training since he went to boot camp three years ago. “So I basically forgot everything.”

The gas chamber also gave soldiers a way to bond outside of their normal assignments.

About one-third of them chose to walk back into the chamber for a second run, but this time, they left their gas masks outside.

“Oh my goodness, what possibly made me do that?” exclaimed one specialist when she emerged from the chamber after a mask-free, “commando-style” exposure.

She was led there by the senior noncommissioned officer in her company, First Sgt. Don Browne. He wanted to get in there when a junior soldier dared him to walk in unprotected.

“That was my ‘hooah’ for the day,” said Browne, 37, as tears ran down his face.

The gas had little effect on one soldier. Pfc. Nicole Taylor went in for the second pass and came out smiling.

“It made my eyes water a little,” she said.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646

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