MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
Early Tuesday morning, Marines and sailors from Headquarters Battalion gathered in front of their command post with their gas masks and a canteen in hand ready to take part in annual gas chamber qualification at Combat Center Range 105.
Though a common sight on bases around the Corps, it’s been a while since this battalion sent members to the chamber.
“Headquarters doesn’t have, has never had, a Nuclear, Biological, Chemical officer on our table of organization,” said Lt. Col. Brandon McGowan, Headquarters Bn.’s commanding officer. “We didn’t even have gas masks on our table of equipment.”
That changed recently in order to meet a Headquarters Marine Corps requirement. Marines in the battalion were issued gas masks and until an NBC officer is assigned, units from across the base will support the training requirement by providing Marines to run the chamber.
After a short bus ride, the training began with classes given on different types of nuclear, biological, radiological and chemical agents and the different levels of equipment used to protect troops from attacks or contamination.
“This training is important because as Marines, we have to be ready for anything,” said Cpl. William Hart, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense specialist with 1st Tank Battalion, and a native of West Palm Beach, Fla. “Saddam Hussein used gas on his own people in 1988 and the threat is still out there — we need to be ready.”
After their classes, they split into groups of 15 and donned the highest level, level four, Mission Oriented Protective Posture equipment, or MOPP gear, then made their way into the gas chamber where they were briefed on o-Chlorobenzy- lidene Malononitrile, more commonly known as CS gas.
“This isn’t a hazing ritual,” said Sgt. Robert Jackson, the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear chief with 1st Tank battalion, as he addressed the Marines and sailors. “We’re here to help instill confidence in your gear; to show you this gear works.”
The masked Marines and sailors made their way into the next room and stood along the walls as Jackson cooked the CS gas.
The instructor had them look up, down, left and right and even had them do jumping jacks to prove the masks do not restrict movement and the seal will not break even during moderate exercise.
To ensure the Marines and sailors could don and clear their gas masks properly, the instructors had each of them break the seal on their mask and clear it — helping each Marine and sailor to perfect the technique.
Before exiting the gas chamber, they had one last obstacle to clear. They had to attach canteens to the drinking hose in their mask, suck in a mouthful of water, then spit it out into their mask.
This process not only reminded them how to use a canteen while wearing their masks, it also showed them how to expel liquids, such as vomit, should the need arise.
After exiting the gas chamber, the Marines and sailors were taught the proper way to strip out of their MOPP gear with the aid of a buddy to prevent contamination of their bodies.
While waiting for the rest of the participants to finish, members of the battalion discussed the training some of them had not participated in since boot camp.
Lance Cpl. Sean Joyce, a military policeman with the Provost Marshal’s Office said she learned a lot and that it wasn’t as bad as she thought it would be.
“For instance, I had never actually drank with my canteen through my gas mask. It was pretty cool.”
Learning and practicing new things with protective equipment is what Hart said makes this type of training important.
He said Marines see the gas mask and they think about the discomfort that comes from the CS gas and not the value of the training.
“We’re here to do the training the way it’s supposed to be done,” he said. “We do the training to prove the gear works and to help Marines learn to protect themselves properly.”
The battalion spent the rest of the week completing confidence chamber training and continues to ensure its Marines and sailors are up to date on all of their annual their training requirements.