A day in a rubber bag, or, getting a feel for chemical defense

AS I tap these words on my portable computer I am wearing a full set of United States Army chemical defense gear: gas mask, oversuit, boots, and gloves. I've had this stuff on for an hour. It's driving me nuts. The squishy gloves make me feel as if I'm typing with my hands in galoshes. The mask resembles a rubber bag tied around my head. I'm in a chilly office, but I'm sweating like a man sealed in a Hefty bag. How can troops stand this?

``Think of the alternative,'' a soldier says. ``Think of dying.''

I've come to the home base of a typical Army division to get a feel for what chemical defense at ground level is like. I've also managed to provide wholesome entertainment for nearby troops, who rarely see civilians lurching about in ill-fitting military clothing.

Simply putting the gear on was not easy. Army norms call for soldiers to don all protective equipment in 8 minutes; it took me longer than that just to figure out which item I'd been handed was which.

Donning the oversuit itself was like putting on a ski outfit made of oilcloth. Pants and tunic snap together and close with drawstrings; a charcoal-impregnated liner keeps poisons from seeping through.

Putting on the boot coverings was more cumbersome. Basically, they are flat rubber envelopes whose edges are wrapped up around the foot with string. Lacing up was a complex task involving loops and numerous half-hitches; the final result, with its turned-up toe, looks curiously elfin. Pull-on models are now being delivered to some units.

Gloves are in two parts: a cotton liner, to absorb sweat, and a rubber covering. In my case the gloves' overlong fingers hung limply, like a circus clown's.

With my gas mask at my side (troops don't put theirs on until ordered to the highest state of readiness), I stumbled toward a brigade chemical defense field exercise. Suits are sized only by length, meaning tall skinny fellows like me wear extra-large sizes that could handle a linebacker.

``You look pregnant,'' said a chemical defense officer upon my arrival.

First stop was a mock decontamination station.

This was a clearing divided by white tape into a series of rectangles, and filled with trash cans. The rectangles represented steps soldiers would go through to cleanse themselves after a chemical attack, such as wading through a trench filled with bleach to clean boots and scrubbing down masks and rifles.

The trash cans would be for items beyond cleansing. As I walked through the site, one of the chemical detectors soldiers were practicing with went off. It made an eerie, air-raid-siren sound.

Some of the detectors that were standard issue in the '70s were so complicated that ``you practically had to be a chemist to operate them,'' says Sgt. 1st Class Gary Triplett, a brigade chemical specialist. He says the newer Geiger-counter-like models are much easier to operate.

Giant confused insects

BUT this fancy equipment is carried only by special chemical and reconnaissance units. Average soldiers use detection paper, which must be very close to the chemical agent to detect it. Near the mock decontamination site was a detection practice area, a sort of forest lane dotted with spots of simulated contamination. It was roped off by yellow tape wrapped around trees and a large yellow sign yelling ``GAS - Blister.'' Inside were three soldiers in full gear, conferring. Their gas masks and quizzical head tilts made them look like giant, confused insects.

They were reading detector paper instructions out loud. ``Loud,'' in this case, was a relative term. The muffling effect of the masks made them sound as if they were yelling up from the bottom of a well.

``You have to learn to talk slow,'' Sergeant Triplett said.

There was a popping sound and a puff of smoke as the group cracked a capsule that makes heat by mixing two chemicals. Below a certain temperature, detection paper must be warmed to work. Having apparently confirmed the presence of poison, the three rushed off to provide more warning signs. They left behind a piece of paper stained dark red.

Finally, it was time to go to full defensive posture and don the mask. It's supposed to take 6 seconds to pull the mask out of its pouch, snap it over your face, and check that it's tight. You get 9 more seconds to pull an attached hood over your neck.

To get mine on took maybe a minute - and three people. The hood just wouldn't go down over my head. After getting it on, my first reaction was that it was nice to get the Kansas wind out of my face. The second was that I couldn't see. A large rubber pug nose was cutting off most of my downward vision. To take notes, I had to hold my notebook at eye level.

Because of the small eyeholes, some common tasks must be done differently. With this model of mask, soldiers learn to hold their M-16 rifles sideways when aiming. Otherwise they can't sight down the barrel.

In combat, company clerks, computer operators, communications specialists, and other clerical and technical workers would have to go about their duties wearing chemical gear. So trying to write while wearing mask and suit is not entirely without reason; to help soldiers and officers get used to the outfit, training sometimes requires them to wear it during their daily office routine.

The world closes in

I GOT through the first several hundred words of this story, plus a phone call to my office to threaten the editors who had the bright idea to send me here. Then the world closed in, and I had to take the gear off.

But if there were real poison out there, soldiers would be trapped inside these suits. Even the best-trained would have to feel some claustrophobia.

Used properly, chemical gear offers excellent protection. The suit is largely meant to stop mustard gas, which can penetrate clothing and attack the skin; the mask blocks nerve gas from its main entry point, the lungs. But in combat, surely drawstrings would have a way of untying and straps, a tendency to loosen.

For me, this brush with chemical defensive gear only gave a hint of the horror of chemical war.

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