Desert Shield: The Threat of Chemical Weapons


Copy of the book Red, White, & True
Copy of Red, White,& True

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:

  1. Take off the helmet (called Kevlar) and put it between our legs.
  2. Pull the mask out of the case.
  3. Put on the mask.
  4. Tighten the straps.
  5. 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.

More in depth on the gas mask: Rod Powers, About.com
Time line for Desert Shield/Desert Storm: Gulflink

Beauty of a Woman Blogfest: My Relationship With My Glasses


Beauty of a Woman Blogfest badge showing a dark pink background and an abstract silhouette of a woman.When I decided to participate in the Beauty of a Woman Blogfest, I didn’t realize what a tough subject the idea of beauty was going to be.  The first image that often comes to mind is what we are bombarded with in the media: The too-thin woman who has been airbrushed into perfection.

So much of it is that we have to look a certain way or we aren’t beautiful.  Anything that changes that is perceived to make a person instantly unattractive.  Like wearing glasses.

GROWING UP WITH GLASSES

When I was in 7th grade, I had to get glasses.  My image of them came from my parents and the media.  My father was an absent minded scientist who wore Clark Kent glasses in basic dark brown.  My mother hid behind her 1950s cat eye lenses, also in basic dark brown.

The media image came in three flavors:

1.  The brainy scientist, as if somehow only smart people could wear glasses (which was never a complement).

2.  The outcast, who got stuck with thick black glasses that were always sliding down on his face and patched with white tape.  Other people taunted him with “Four eyes!”

3.  The beautiful blonde girl who got stuck wearing wearing glasses and only wore them when needed and as little as possible at that, even if she did walk into furniture.

And I was supposed to be wearing glasses?!

It didn’t help that, at the time, there were not a lot of choices for frames.  Anything as long as it was dark brown or black and plastic.

It was picking the best of bad choices.

I hated them, and hated wearing them.  I ended up being like the beautiful blonde girl — leaving them off until I needed to see, and then I would drag them out.  As soon as I didn’t need them to see again, I’d yank them off and stuff them back into my bag, hoping no one noticed them.

But I was seated in the front row and had trouble reading the blackboard, so eventually necessity won.  I looked at the school portraits in the year book –rows of smiling kids, and then this one girl that stood out because she was one of the few to be wearing glasses.  Worse, because of the frame design time had stuck me with, the glasses stood out more than me.

They seemed like the Grand Canyon to me, but looking back, I realize that no one made fun of me.  Instead, it seemed more like they pretended not to notice.

GLASSES AT WAR

I enlisted in the army in 1989.  Even they were determined to punish people who wore glasses.  We were issued glasses a pair known infamously as Birth Control Glasses (that’s the politically correct name. There was a far more offensive one that was in common use).   Those who could afford it, replaced the glasses as fast as possible.  Fortunately, the drill sergeants allowed us to wear our personal ones.  Maybe they felt sorry for us.  The glasses were uglier than the ones I’d been forced to get when I was a child.

Then it was off to Fort Lewis, Washington for my  first duty station, and a little over a year later, Iraq invaded Kuwait.  By September, we knew it was likely we were to go.  The biggest concern was that Saddam Hussein would use chemical weapons on us.  Every day, the news made sure all of the soldiers knew they were going over to Saudi Arabia to die.  We feverishly trained in chemical warfare, putting on a gas mask and the protective suit that came with gloves and shoes.

There was one small problem.

The most critical item was to get the gas mask on.

In nine seconds.

The time was not for people who had to wear glasses.  We had to take off Kevlar (helmet) and put it between our legs and yank out the mask and drag it over our head and seal it.  That’s a lot to do in nine seconds, and the glasses added two extra steps.  They had to come off and go somewhere.  I always tossed them in the Kevlar, but it consumed valuable seconds.

It was a struggle to make the nine seconds.  Contact lenses were not an option — we were not allowed to wear them because the gas could get under the lenses.  I spotted an op ed piece in USA Today showing a soldier with a skull for a face.

Would I be able to get my mask on time if we were gassed?

What would happen to my glasses after we had gotten gassed?

No one answered those questions, and I started to get that queasy feeling that I might die because of my glasses.  I went through the war, my glasses a constant reminder of potential death.

GLASSES TODAY

It’s only been recently that I’ve liked my glasses, and that’s because they’ve come into fashion.  My last pair of glasses were green and brown.  I picked the color because my eyes are green.  My current ones  are gold and white with some nice design work.  For the first time in my life since I’ve worn glasses, these two pairs got me compliments from both men and women.

But it’s still portrayed as something ugly in the media.  Women actors on TV rarely wear them, unless it’s to show a cliché.  Yeah, models do wear them, but only when they are selling the glasses, and I hate to say it, but I can tell the model doesn’t wear glasses.

How come not being the same as everyone else is portrayed as unattractive?  Do you wear glasses?  How were you treated by other people because of the glasses?