Alexandra's Notebook

Gas Attack, Gas Attack

Because a friend asked whether or not, as part of my training, I had to go through the “gas tent” — a process where newbies on receipt of fancy new NBC gear had to test it and our skills at putting it all on, in the correct order, and walk through a large green tent filled with CS gas — I thought I better recount my experience.

This was a test no one got out of doing. Funnily enough on the day I had to do my training with a couple of other newbies, we had the newly arrived Group Captain and a couple of high up officers there for training. Our little humble group sat on the same benches with the higher ups listening to the same training sergeant drone on, while watching a very graphic projection of soldiers and airmen dealing with fake injuries that included, would you believe, disembowelment.

It was fun to watch the men in the tent squirm at the vivid and graphic nature of seeing someone in their NBC gear trying to stuff what were essentially pigs innards into a writhing screaming airman. All simulated for us to learn what we might have to do in the midst of war. Not that we were there for emergency medical training. Not that that stopped them making us sit through 30 minutes of gore before we even started leaning about what our suits did, and did to do. And then, how to put them on properly while being timed with a stopwatch and yelled at to go faster.

Yes, even those senior officers.

We all clumsily ran through these manoeuvres several times during that hour till, coming up for our lunch break, they had us all line up to be filed through the gas tent, one by one.

This is without our masks on.

We had to put that on inside the tent while trying desperately not to breath in the CS gas, and, with eyes streaming, correctly put our masks on in less than 9 seconds. We were all told the precise process; pull the ties tight, check the seals and filter canister and then …. wait 3 minutes to see if we ended up choking or not.

If we’d done it right, we could exit the tent and go to recovery. If not, choking, you had to go back out where you came in and start all over again. You got a couple of minutes to catch your breath and then, go back into the fray.

I’m proud to say that both the Group Captain and I were the only ones who walked through, unscathed, to the other side. Where this big corpulent man, laughing, took off his mask, smiled, and clapped a big hand on my shoulder and said, “well done.” I never knew if he meant it for me, or himself.

The thing is. I never did tell anyone I was really good at holding my breath for a good 3 minutes.