After taking off masks in special gas chamber at Schofield Barracks, Army soldiers stumble out the door. All soldiers must go through this annual test to maintain proficiency with nerve agents.

Getting gassed

Troops at Schofield Barracks
train to do battle in gear that
protects against chemical agents

Saddam's gas arsenal

By Gregg K. Kakesako

As soon as Army Sgt. Kevin White broke the seal of his protective gas mask, the burning, the itching, the tearing and the irritation set in.

Tears poured out of his puffy eyes, which were now sealed shut by the fumes. Sweat streamed from every pore on his face. Saliva ran from his mouth and more liquids poured out of his nose.

There was the almost immediate and automatic reaction for White, a three-year Army veteran, to rub his eyes, hoping for relief from the burning.

In the background he could hear the booming voice of Staff Sgt. Darryl Stevenson, a Desert Storm veteran: "Don't touch your eyes. Heads up. Don't touch your head. Don't touch yourself. If you don't rub anything; you will be good in 15 minutes."

Later, Sgt. Luciano Oyharsabal, 30, said he could only describe the initial affects of the "gas attack" as "like my chest was being crushed."

For soldiers of the Headquarters, Headquarters Company of the Wolfhounds 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, "the gas attack" took place in the controlled confines of a 10-foot-by-10-foot wooden shed at a Schofield Barrack's training range and not in a desert in Iraq. The gas wasn't a nerve or blister agent, but CS, which the Army says is similar to tear gas.

President Bush and other U.S. officials say Iraq has stocks of nerve agents sarin, cyclosarin and VX and a mustard agent like that first used in World War I.

Every coalition soldier in Iraq has been issued with three antidote injectors that pump atropine into the bloodstream.

The occasion at Schofield last week was the annual tests all soldiers must go through to maintain their proficiency and familiarization with nerve and blister agents. The soldiers are tested on the proper way to wear the protective gas masks and charcoal activated protective uniform, to decontaminate themselves and their equipment after being hit by gas and to inject a nerve agent antidote.

The final test was the "gas chamber" where the soldiers spent about 10 minutes walking around wearing the protective mask and protective uniform, doing a few exercise to get a feel of the equipment and finally "breaking the seal" of their mask and putting it back on.

"The idea of the chamber is to help soldiers develop confidence in their equipment," said Sgt. Maj. James Baumgartner, the 25th Infantry Division's top enlisted chemical expert.

Pvt. William Dodge, who experienced being "gassed" for the second time since joining the Army nine months ago, agreed. "When you get into the chamber, the MOPP gear keeps you protected. It works remarkably well. When you have the mask on, you feel fully confident."

When Dodge says MOPP he doesn't mean something used to clean floors. He is referring to what the Army calls Mission Oriented Protective Posture or MOPP. There are four levels of protection, with MOPP 4 being the highest, where the soldiers must wear a special outer garment which has a water repellent cotton outer layer and an inner layer of charcoal impregnated polyurethane foam. In MOPP 4, soldiers also must don thick vinyl overboots, rubber gloves and a protective mask with a hood that covers their entire head.

Soldiers are required to train in this cumbersome and heat-generating uniform and protective mask for up to six hours at a time. Once wearing the chemical suits a soldier's body temperature will climb by 10 to 15 degrees.

Baumgartner said, "They have to learn to fire their weapons with their masks on."

Soldiers like Stevenson, who is the division's chemical and biological training officer, attend special classes for three months at the Army's Chemical School at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Part of the training includes working in the chemical defense training facility (CDTF) where students, outfitted in MOPP 4 level, decontaminate equipment affected by a live nerve agent.

Staff Sgt. Raymond Quitugua, the battalion's training noncommissioned officer, described the experience as "pretty scary. It's one thing knowing that CS is a mild irritant, but working with a live nerve agent makes you take your job more seriously."

"The CS chamber here is just a walk in the park compared to CDTF."

Soldiers are required to get their protective masks on in 16 seconds and be fully outfitted at MOPP 4 level in eight minutes. Stevenson said that during the 1991 Desert Storm campaign soldiers were known to don the full MOPP 4 gear in two minutes. Many use the buddy system in climbing into the full chemical protection suits.

With more than 160 Schofield Barracks soldiers in Southwest Asia and a handful fighting in Iraq, knowing how to properly wear these chemical suits and masks and detect gas and nerve agents are just as important as knowing how to fire a rifle, soldiers maintain.

Each soldier carries three sets of nerve agent antidotes in their gas mask, Stevenson said. Each set has two injectors -- the first being atropine, which helps to block the absorption of nerve agents into the blood system. That is followed by a shot of Pralidoxime Chloride, which further assists the absorption of atropine.

Soldiers also carry M8 detection kits, which contain strips of litmus paper that change color if mustard or nerve agents are present in the air, and M291 and M259 decontamination kits to clean their uniform and equipment using a charcoal solution that absorbs these chemicals.

Baumgartner said soldiers in the latest Gulf War are issued the new Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology protective clothing, which is similar to what is worn by Schofield Barracks soldiers, but is lighter and allows better wicking of sweat and moisture from within. The 25th Division is expected to get these new chemical suits later this year.

The new protective jackets and pants eliminate the carbon-impregnated foam liner that soldiers say acts as a sponge for sweat and ground moisture. It was replaced with an outer shell that repels liquids and is backed by a thin liner laminate that incorporates carbon beads that lets moisture out, but doesn't let chemical agents in.

Also expected to be issued to Hawaii soldiers this year is a new protective mask that will have a silicone rubber face piece that is more comfortable and provides a better seal. It is lighter, soldiers claim, easier to maintain and has a better field of vision.


Saddam’s stockpiles
said to include
VX and sarin

The Center for Defense Information believes Saddam Hussein's toxic threats involve stockpiles of chemical warfare weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve agents VX and sarin.

Thousands of chemical warfare munitions remain unaccounted for, including as many as 25,000 rockets and 15,000 artillery shells. Iraq claims to have halted its chemical warfare production schedule. The center said that in 1995, Iraq admitted to the existence of offensive biological warfare capabilities that include anthrax, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin.

>> NERVE AGENTS: Sarin, used by the Aum Shinrikyo group in a Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 12 people and injuring thousands; cyclosarin; tabun; soman; and VX. These agents damage muscle and central nervous systems and sweat and salivary glands. These are treated by shots of atropine and pralidoxime.

>> BLISTER AGENTS: Lewisite and mustard gas. Been around since World War I. Blisters skin and lungs. Eyes and skin can be irrigated and treated with lotion or ointment.

Source: Defense Department Chemical and Biological Defense Program.

Star-Bulletin staff

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