We were standing there as a platoon waiting our turn to go into the gas chamber. You can imagine our apprehensive state of mind as we had heard all kinds of horror stories about this part of training. The gas chamber. The name itself insights fear.
One of the male platoons was currently taking their turn in the chamber. We were across the field in formation quiet, each of us reflecting on what was about to happen to us. About 50 of them filed one-by-one into the concrete “house of horrors.” We watched as they sullenly followed each other.
Now I won’t lie to you. This is one of the phases of training that the drill instructors absolutely cannot wait to get to. This was evident by the sheer joy they got from holding the doors shut, beating on it and the windows from outside, terrorizing the scared recruits. Little did they know that they were about to encounter a curve ball.
Without warning a high-pitched shriek came from inside the chamber. It was like a woman’s scream, shrill and terrified. We all watched from afar as a male recruit somehow managed to force his way out of the gas chamber and literally headed toward the tree line. His Company Commander was among the drill instructors who went chasing after him. He did not stop screaming, nor did he stop running. He was absolutely traumatized and appeared convinced that he was about to die. He was caught of course and arrested. He was arrested because during his panic session, he hit his Company Commander. An obvious “no-no,” terrified or not.
The rest of us watched in utter shock at what had just unfolded and could not believe it. The next thought in my head was that this must be worse than we all thought. There wasn’t much time to let what happened sink in as we were next.
Filing in one-by-one we entered a concrete structure the size of a small bedroom. Inside was a NBC instructor. NBC stands for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical agents. He had his gas mask on and stood at the front and center of the room. We were told to stand side-by-side with our backs to the wall. Our gas masks were on when he lit the chemical agent that sparked the gas. Once there was enough gas in the room, the drill instructors who were inside with us commanded us to crack the seal in our masks allowing some of the gas to seep in. This is to teach us how to “don and clear” our masks. Much like how you would empty water out of your mask if you were underwater. We did as we were told. I held my breath for this and realized it wasn’t nearly as bad as what I had thought.
Next, we were told to hold our breath, close our eyes, take our masks completely off and hold them out in front of us. THIS is where the panic sets in if it is going to because we had to wait until everyone had their masks out in front of them. Some of the recruits were beginning to panic a little as the time for holding your breath had expired and you are now breathing in the gas. I utilize the term “breathing” because this is as close a word as I can get. In actuality it was more like drowning in gas.
Finally when everyone was in sync, we were allowed to put our masks back on and don and clear again. A little more panic as some recruits struggled to do this. I could feel recruits on both sides of me grabbing my shoulders, shouting that their eyes were burning. Fortunately the door was opened and we were told to run out in a single file line with our hands held out beside us like an airplane. We ran to the water barrels that were provided and dipped our masks in there several times to wash away the gas on our masks.
Mucus and tears were running down every recruit’s face. For a female platoon and after seeing what we had witnessed with the terrified male recruit, we did an outstanding job of keeping our cool. Not one recruit was so terrified that she couldn’t keep her bearing and panic under control. Some of us even wanted to do it again.
The gas chamber is definitely an experience that will stay with you the rest of your life, much like Marine Corps boot camp as a whole. It was a real gut check and confidence building session. My advice for anyone going into Marine Corps boot camp is to realize that thousands have gone before you and have survived the gas chamber. The drill instructors are not trying to kill you, nor are you going to die from the experience. It is there to test the limits of a person’s character and mental strength. If you are worthy of the title of United States Marine, you will be one of those who understands this concept and succeeds.