Desert Shield: The Threat of Chemical Weapons
As you can see, I have a book to share this week. This is an anthology of military stories that I’m being published in that’s coming out in August. If you want to know what it was like being in the military, or having a relative in the military, check it out. The best thing is that a lot of women have a voice in this book, and that doesn’t always happen with books that tell stories about the military.
You can preorder it from Amazon.com.
Off to Desert Shield now …
One of the hardest things about being a soldier during the early days of Operation Desert Shield is that we both had too much information and not enough. I ended up having just enough of the wrong things so my imagination was really free to explore. Sometimes it’s not a good thing to be a writer!
Within just about two weeks of the invasion, Saddam Hussein was blustering that if the U.S. came, he would kill all the soldiers. He was reported to have stockpiles of nerve agent gas, and just a few years before, he had used poison gas against Halabja.
Poison gas had been used in World War I. I remember reading All Quiet on the Western Front and imagining the horrific effects of mustard gas from the words in the book (yup, it’s not always good to be a writer). Now I was imagining that happening to me.
The problem with nerve agent gas is that you can’t see it. You can’t hear it. You can’t touch it. But you can smell it.
“What does it smell like?” I asked my squad leader, who was also a specialist in chemical weapons.
“Freshly mowed grass,” he answered.
That helped less than I thought it would. I think was hoping for reassurance with knowledge, but it made me realize that if I was close enough to smell it, it was probably too late.
How do you get through a day knowing that you might be going into a place where an unseen entity might creep up on you and kill you?
The newspapers were no help. Hussein’s threats were big news, so headlines screamed them, op-ed pieces debated them, and editorial cartoons illustrated them.
The effect this threat had was to create this … miasma of darkness that hovered around our company and touched every soldier. It was like every day felt heavy with the weight of it, and I could see the fear in the actions of my sergeants and officers.
Training came first. Our focus was on chemical weapons. Then, we used the M17A1 protective masks (we never called it a gas mask; it was always a protective mask. Guess the army was trying to treat it more positively).
If you want a comparison, it’s a little like wearing a face mask for going into a pool, except it’s your whole face and you breathe through it. When I had it on, my breathing always sounded like I was doing Darth Vader imitations.
We had 9 seconds to get the mask on.
Think about that a moment. If I smelled freshly mowed grass, I had 9 seconds before it started to take affect.
The Darth Vader video above is 20 seconds.
We had to do all the following in 9 seconds:
- Take off the helmet (called Kevlar) and put it between our legs.
- Pull the mask out of the case.
- Put on the mask.
- Tighten the straps.
- Seal the mask.
But, for some soldiers, like me, we had an extra step. I wore glasses. So I had to take off the glasses and drop them in the helmet, then do the rest of the steps. No matter how much I trained, I was always about two seconds late.
What did that mean for me? Was I going to die because I wore glasses?
Contacts, by the way, were not recommended because the gas could get under them. Right.
The masks also were designed for men’s faces. One of the other women soldiers, who was very small and worked hard to get to 100 pounds, had a very thin face. Even the extra small mask did not fit her. She couldn’t get it to seal, and no one had any answers for her.
It was not hard to think that we were all going to die over there, and I took that home with me every day like a heavy cloud that wrapped itself around me.