Conquering fears and trusting equipment: all in a day’s work
Cadet Matthew Lumia of Valley Forge Military Academy & College in Wayne, Pa. didn’t really know what to expect of the gas chamber at Leader Training Course. But he did know that he was scared.
“What do I expect?” the Juliet Company cadet asked. “To get gassed? I don’t know.”
He said cadre members skirted around explaining how the CS gas would feel, but told the cadets they would enter the chamber wearing a sealed gas mask.
“Hopefully [it seals],” Lumia said.
The gas used inside the chamber is CS gas, named after the two Americans who discovered it in 1928. Ben Corson and Roger Stoughton dubbed the compound 2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile CS for their surnames.
Lt. Col. Decker Hains, the Professor of Military Science at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, served as the committee chief of Cadet Summer Training’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear committee.
“It’s an irritant,” Hains said of the CS gas. “It is tear gas, non-lethal, and it’s basically a lot of discomfort as far as breathing goes. It gets in your eyes, burns a little bit.”
But, he assured, “The concentrations that we use are absolutely nowhere near anything that’s going to hurt anybody. The cadets can only stay in for 15 seconds once their mask is removed.”
Hains said one purpose of the exercise is for the cadets to gain confidence in their ability to use CBRN equipment.
“They development confidence in their equipment,” Hains said. “This stuff actually works.”
But more importantly, Hains said, is developing a little bit of confidence in the ability to use that equipment and the fact that it’s not going to hurt them.
“A lot of cadets are a little bit fearful of going into a chemical environment for the first time,” Hains said. “And we tell them if they start freaking out in the environment trying to lead soldiers, their soldiers are going to freak out. And that’s the last thing we want to happen to our leaders. So they need to be confident in their ability to lead. And also they start appreciating the challenges associated with breathing with the equipment. They can’t breathe quite as well, they have the gloves on and the boots on, and a lot of common tasks are harder to do. But as leaders, we have to keep doing those tasks to accomplish the mission.
Cadets cycled through the chamber, entering the rear entrance masked and ready, exiting the front bleary-eyed and coughing.
“We ask them to remove their mask, and we ask them a few questions and we hand them off to our door-person and they process them through the door, make sure they don’t hurt themselves on the way out,” Hains said. “I like to ask them random questions. I mean, we all do the usual – name, university. I like to ask, “Who’s the green monster in the garbage can in Sesame Street?” And I mean, by the time we get to their last question, they can’t think straight. You’d be surprised how many of them can’t figure out I mean Oscar the Grouch.”
Cadets then make their way to the resiliency area. The resiliency area is essentially a carousel of cadets, flapping their arms, blinking and coughing.
“They flap their arms and blink their eyes,” Hains said. “And the reason they’re flapping their arms is to open their lungs up and also [get] the gas off their suit.”
Alec Krekel, a Juliet Company cadet from the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, thought the anticipation was the worst part but the gas wasn’t too comfortable, either.
“Once I took [the mask] off, it didn’t affect me that much,” Krekel said. “And then I talked. I swallowed the gas and my eyes started watering and I just ran out.”
Preston Horn’s eyes and nose ran, as well. But the India Company cadet from Tuskegee, University in Tuskegee, Al. was quick to make a clarification.
“It wasn’t tears from myself, it just happened.”
Although Hains assured the cadets the misery wouldn’t last more than 15 seconds, most cadets stayed inside the chamber for a shorter amount of time.
“I was in there for, I’m gonna say seven seconds,” Horn said. “They said we were in there for five but I’m gonna give myself an extra two.”
Lumia stood in a group with his platoon members, much more relaxed after the adventure.
“That was fun, right?” he asked to his group mates. “I thought that was fun. Not bad. Not as bad as I thought at all. My face was burning when I got in there, though.”
One of his platoon members told him that meant his mask wasn’t sealed.
Krekel believed the exercise was meant to not only learn to trust equipment, but to also overcome fears.
“I think it conquers fears,” Krekel said. “I feel a lot better now than I did 10 minutes ago, that’s for sure. I feel confident.”