Gas mask 101

Today, we got our NBC gear. No, it doesn't involve Tom Brokaw. In military-speak, NBC stands for nuclear, biological, chemical.

First we are given a large heavy-duty plastic bag, into which we put a gas mask, an NBC suit, rubber boots, rubber gloves, and a Magic Marker-sized auto-injector filled with nerve agent antidote. Then, we haul our sacks over the hotel's tennis courts for training.

Instructors divide the group of journalists into groups of a dozen or so and help us assemble our gas masks. Sgt. Stephen Cegielski of Milwaukee screws an air canister onto my mask. Then he snaps in the lenses - I have the options of tinted or clear. Does it matter? I choose clear. Sgt. Cegielski places a rubber covering over the mask and tucks it around the lenses and valves.

The mask and autoinjector go into a pouch slung around my waist.

The mask looks significantly more substantial than the Chinese models peddled in Kuwait City. Those masks are only useful for 30 minutes. I ask the sergeant how long these masks last. His answer is pedantic, but reassuring. The masks are good for 120 days of casual use, 45 days of continual use, or through six washings.

Using a gas mask isn't as simple as strapping it over your face. And military trainers only give you nine seconds to get it on, so the maneuvers are carefully scripted. Otherwise, you'll experience what the World War I poet Wilfred Owen described as "an ecstasy of fumbling."

The drill begins.

"GAS! GAS! GAS!" bellows the sergeant.

Stop breathing. That's the first thing.

Using your left hand, open the pouch slung around your waist. With your right hand, grab the mask, place it under your chin and rock the lens area forward onto your face.

So far, so good. Not too complicated.

Then I get hung up.

You need to bang your right palm forcefully on a valve near your chin while you exhale. (That's supposed to clear the mask and your lungs of toxic air.) Then you use your left thumb to cover the air hole on the canister. When I do this, the mask sucks onto my face like a too-tight snorkel mask. According to Cegielski, I should be able to breath freely at this point. But I am just suctioning the mask harder onto my face.

I can't breathe. I take the mask off after the nine seconds. I'm cooked.

Luckily, a fellow journalist who has been in the British army helps me. The suctioning is a good thing, he says, it's creating a seal to prevent toxic air from entering. It's at that point I need to pull down the mask's straps and secure it to my face. Then, I can remove my thumb from the canister hole and breathe.

We are told to wait until someone says "All clear" before removing our masks. "You want to see the person who says 'All clear' and make sure he doesn't have a mask on," the trainer says.

I should get plenty of practice with the mask on the base. At Al Salem, I was told surprise gas drills are held regularly.

We move on to the NBC suit.

The suit consists of a thick two-piece uniform, rubber boots, and rubber gloves. It only requires a few minor steps beyond simply putting it on.

I take some comfort in the assurance of the sergeant that if toxic agents are used, we will be moved out of the area as quickly as possible. "Are you just referring to us journalists?" someone asks.

"No, a main body of the troops will leave the area," he says.

Tomorrow, I am off to the air base.

Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment in Kuwait as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the expected invasion of Iraq. His reporting is collected in the web special project Assignment: Kuwait (http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/).

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