Practice made perfect

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This morning, it was for real.

I was sitting in the press center at base headquarters. The tight, narrow room was packed with 10 people. Two new embeds had just arrived. In the midst of introductions, we heard a faint announcement over the intercom.

Staff Sgt. Jason Haag told people to be quiet as he listened to the message repeat.

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"MOPP level 4. Alarm Red," he said forcefully. The sergeant's tone of voice and the unmistakable sound of Velcro as he ripped open his gas mask holder struck me immediately, even before I understood the announcement.

Two reporters dashed out of the room. Others spun around, looking for their gear. I stopped breathing. My fingers fumbled with the strap. Finally, I ripped the Velcro, and grabbed the mask.

Practice made perfect. The mask went on easily. I exhaled to clear it, and then inhaled. That first breath bathed me in relief.

Some people were stepping into the pants of their NBC suits. I unzipped my backpack and pulled out the bags containing my suit top and bottom. All these zippers and seals, I thought. Am I going to get this stuff on in time?

No one said a word. The only sounds were the screech of Velcro, the rustle of the protective clothing, and the snap of rubber mask straps. Someone had shut off the air conditioner to prevent contamination. The room got jungle hot.

My fingers trembled as I worked my sneakers through the pants. I had difficulty snapping the waist button. Next came the suit top with hood. We had been trained to find a buddy to tighten the cords in our hood. My colleague Glen and I helped each other out.

Finally, I slipped on the rubber boot covers and gloves. I saw the sergeant crouched under his desk, so I grabbed my helmet and tried to fit as much of my body under the closest computer desk. My legs hung outside the desk.

Curled into a ball, I was sweating. How much time had passed, I wondered? It takes several minutes for an Iraqi missile to cover the distance. Everyone was completely still.

The only sound came from the television. A Fox News reporter in Kuwait City heard an alarm and put on a gas mask. That was reassuring - maybe the missile wasn't heading in our direction. I kept telling myself that Iraqi missile technology is wildly inaccurate. My heart pounded.

After several minutes that felt like forever, the intercom announced: "All clear."

As soon as masks came off, we critiqued our own performances. Several people felt they didn't gear up fast enough. Voices wavered. We learned that the two reporters who had run out upon hearing the announcement weren't chasing the story. They had left their protective gear just outside the door.

Two more times today, we heard "MOPP level 4, Alarm Red." MOPP stands for Mission-Oriented Protective Postures. Earlier, we had been at MOPP 0, which means that we need ready access to our gear. Four is the highest. When an Alarm Red is called, it means that an attack is imminent. We are told to take cover, and don helmet and flak vest over the suit.

And then we listen for the "All clear." Waiting is the hardest maneuver of all.

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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