It’s only February, but the day is already warm in West Georgia as several dozen Army privates put down their M-16 rifles and sit on a packed dirt circle in front of me. I get out my notebook and camera, and can’t help noticing that sweat drips out of many of their Kevlar helmets as they wait for the drill sergeant’s instructions. Their faces betray no emotion, but I know better. They’re nervous as hell.
And I would be too, if I were them.
These young men — many of them still boys, really — are about to undergo one of the most infamous tests of the U.S. Army Infantry’s basic training program — the gas chamber.
Little known on the outside, Army gas chamber training involves having basic trainees stand in a room full of CS gas, a harmless yet powerful skin irritant, while removing their gas masks and reciting their names and social security numbers. When the trainees emerge one minute later, the front of their Army Combat Uniform jackets will be covered in snot from their running noses, and their eyes will be bloodshot and watery. The insides of their mouths and noses will burn and itch. They’ll run laps around the training area with their arms held out like airplane wings, letting the breeze remove the traces of gas that cling to their clothes and skin. They’ll move lethargically, but the drill sergeants will let it go, remembering going through the gas chamber years earlier themselves. When it’s all over, the trainees will gain a confidence in themselves they’d never known, and faith in the ability of their equipment to protect them in the event of a real biological gas attack.
But the young men sitting on the ground in front of me don’t know any of that yet. All they know is that they’re being lectured to, yet again, about where they will and will not be permitted to go during this particular training session. They look tired and vaguely bored as they stare up attentively at the sergeant in charge of the gas chamber, who’s outlining the ground rules with the air of a schoolteacher patiently informing his students that following the rules at the playground is really for their own good. There is to be no wandering off from the designating waiting area before being instructed to enter the gas chamber, he says. Trainees needing to use the latrine must take a buddy with them and inform a drill sergeant where they are going. And, above all, at no time should any private be found in or near the sergeants’ latrine. Was he understood?
“Yes, sergeant!” they chant methodically.
As the basic trainees begin to filter through the gas chamber in small groups, I wait outside the exit with my camera ready to capture their first gulps of fresh air. Each time the door bursts open and the teary, snot-covered privates charge out, I’m hit by an invisible wall of a thousand onions. The irritation stays with me until the next group charges out, and the onion feeling intensifies. A group of drill sergeants is standing under a pine grove roughly 100 feet away. They invite me to join them, but I decline, relishing the chance to experience what few out of uniform ever get to see.
After about an hour and a half, almost all of the basic trainees have made it through the chamber. Most passed through just fine on their first try, but some had to repeat the dreaded experience after panicking and putting their gas masks back on. And one sits dejectedly under a pine tree by himself — even a drill sergeant’s yelling couldn’t get him past his fear.
I pack up my camera and head back to the car, holding my arms out to the side like airplane wings. On the way back to the office, I roll down the windows and breathe with my mouth open to get rid of the gas. This afternoon, I’ll spend a few hours in an air- conditioned office; tonight, I’ll eat a home-cooked meal and sleep in a bed. The basic trainees won’t.
Photo credit: US Army