A popular event in the early phases of Army Basic Combat Training is the gas chamber. This event is known as a “Confidence Training Event” as you learn the ability of the protective mask. The chemical used in the chamber is called orto-chlorobenzylidene-malononitrile, or simply CS or Tear gas. Yes, it is the same gas the police officers use for riot control. Tear gas is an irritant; specifically, it irritates mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, mouth and lungs, causing tearing, sneezing, coughing, and in some case vomiting. Although I will say, it does clear out the sinuses quite well.
Depending on the component (active, reserve, or national guard) this might be the only experience that soldiers get to perform “confidence training” with a Protective Mask; note, it is not called a gas mask, because it protects the individual from more than just gases. I say this as a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (74D) Sergeant – basically I’m in charge of the maintenance of the Protective Masks for my unit.
Anyways, back to basic training. Initial entry soldiers look forward to the gas chamber for a number of different reasons:
1) Checking off one of the major training events,
2) Rite of passage
3) Experience of tear gas
Plus, it’s not like you can say “no” and skip the event.
On the morning of the gas chamber we marched through the woods and less than a mile from our barracks to a black painted cinder block building with no windows. We were given instruction on the correct wear and use of the mask than onto waiting to get a turn in the gas chamber. I was one of the last groups to go into the gas chamber, so I had to sit and watch everyone else suffer as they burst out of the building from inhaling the tear gas.
I lined up with a group of 20 recruits and went inside the gas chamber. Once inside I could barely see, the room was thick with the CS gas. But, something that did instill confidence in my mask, I did not experience any respiratory irritations. The only discomfort I experienced was the gas was irritating my sun burn on my neck. Next, we cycled through many different exercises to get our heart and breathing rate up. The inevitable was next, the Drill Sergeant tapped my shoulder to give me the signal to remove my mask and take a deep breath and recite the Soldier’s creed. I got through one line and my lungs started to burn and it became difficult to breathe. After reciting the second line the Drill Sergeant let me leave.
I rushed out and started flapping my arms, the international symbol for I might be exposed to a hazardous chemical. My eyes were watering, my nose was running, my lungs felt like they were on fire and I couldn’t stop coughing, but at least I didn’t throw up.
While most training doesn’t have to be this extreme, the experience would have been completely different if we just wore our protective mask without experiencing the CS gas. Hands on-training and confidence testing of gear/equipment plays an essential role in being able to trust the gear. It is important to incorporate as much hands-on training into safety classes to ensure individuals retain the information and that they can obtain confidence in their gear.