by Donna Zephrine
Army basic training was broken into three phases, red, white, and blue, like the American flag. The gas chamber was red phase, week three. Going into basic training you expect it to be difficult, but nothing could have prepared me for my experience in the gas chamber. I was nervous because I had heard on the news about the dangers of chemical or biological weapons. I was concerned that I would have a bad reaction to the gas. I did not want to do it, but I felt like I had no choice. I knew it was part of basic training and I was determined to pass.
A school bus transported us to the training site. Wearing our BDUs with our issued gas masks, we were broken into groups small enough to fit into the chamber. We had training on how to seal our masks prior to this event so we knew how to use them. All we were told was to try and hold our breath for as long as we could once we took our masks off, and to try to keep our eyes closed to avoid tearing up.
The groups before me spent about three minutes in the chamber. Waiting for each of them to finish, I could feel the nervousness building in my body. My heart raced, beating so hard it felt like it would burst from my chest. My stomach was doing back flips. I wiped the sweat from my face, trying to not show my nerves growing inside me. The soldiers in my group were all looking around, not sure what was about to come. Fear filled the air. We could hear the screeches and screams of pain coming from soldiers inside. I will never forget those sounds.
My group was led in by the drill sergeant. We already had our masks on and secured. The sergeant opened a lever that released the CS gas. We were instructed to take our masks off while holding our breath and closing our eyes. I hesitated for a moment, then took off the mask and prayed I would make it through. The gas hit my face like flames, scorching my skin and infiltrating my entire body with heat. I gagged instantly.
The sergeant yelled commands. He had us chanting answers to questions and the Soldiers’ Creed, which required us to open our mouths, letting the gas in. Some soldiers began forcing their way out, trying to go through the drill sergeant. The sergeants were yelling, pushing the soldiers back in and commanding them to follow orders. The yelling only added to the chaos.
The gas burned my eyes, my lungs were on fire. It felt like the gas was going through my whole body, torturing my organs. Other soldiers vomited inside the chamber. Our faces were full of fright and disgust, bursting to scream but too afraid to open our mouths. A wave of despair filled the air as soldiers realized this might be the end, we could die here. We stayed in there for about four or five minutes, long enough for each person to recite their name and social security number. Those four minutes felt like hours. Time never moved so slowly. It was hard to focus enough to pronounce my name and recite my SSN. I panicked when it was my turn just wanting to get it over with but not wanting to open my mouth. I went as fast as I could.
Once the sergeant felt it had been long enough, he let us escape.
We ran out of there like our lives depended on it. We pushed our way through, looking for fresh air and light. They told us to keep moving and keep our arms out to the side to open up our lungs, and let the clean air in. We were told it would not take very long for the gas to leave the system as long as we followed the instructions.
I ran out of there and used my arms like a bird, flapping to try and catch my breath. My eyes burned and were red, like the fire I felt inside my lungs. Fresh air never felt so good. Flapping my arms, I felt as free as a bird who escaped a cage.
I had done it, I had survived.