by Steven Miller
In the Summer of 1969, I was in Ft. Riley, Kansas, enjoying eight weeks of Summer Camp, the ROTC version of basic trading. We marched, ran, and shot rifles, and learned leadership principles and combat tactics. All this, plus a dose of life in the non-air-conditioned barracks, was designed to prepare us college boys to one day lead troops into battle.
The war in Vietnam was raging, and most of us were a year away from potentially entering that conflict. While in the back of our minds we hoped it might end before our turn came up, we knew we had to be ready.
Near the end of our training, our drill instructors issued us rubber gas masks then marched us along three miles of dusty gravel tank tracks to a spot under the hot Kansas sun for what was described as “gas mask orientation.” A large canvas tent was set up near a “water buffalo,” a tank of drinking water hooked to the back of a 2-1/2 ton truck. For miles in every direction, the brown prairie grass stretched into the distance, interrupted only occasionally by small clumps of trees. Far off to the west, where the blazing blue sky met the horizon, I noticed what looked like storm clouds.
We were told this exercise would instill confidence in the mask and its ability to protect us from gas attacks. We would put the masks on and pull the straps securely to ensure that no air could seep in between the edges of the masks and our sweaty cheeks. We would then enter the tent, which was filled with CS gas, commonly known as tear gas, and breathe through the filters built into the mask. To be sure we understood the seriousness of the exercise, we would then remove the masks and enjoy a moment or two in the gas-filled tent before being released into the fresh air.
We were formed up by platoons, and began to file into the tent, one squad at a time, like condemned men being led to execution. I was in the 4th Squad, 3rd Platoon, so I had plenty of opportunity to see my fellow cadets exit the far side of the tent gasping for air and trying to clear the gas from their eyes, streams of mucus dripping from their noses. It was clear that this was not going to be an enjoyable day of training.
As the last squad of 1st Platoon disappeared behind the closing of the tent flaps, I glanced to the west. The storm clouds had grown into towering thunderheads, puffy and white at the tops, but dark and ominous where they met the horizon. They seemed to me much closer than they had been a few moments earlier.
The squads of 2nd Platoon donned their masks and shuffled dutifully through the flaps.
I looked again to the west. The clouds marched toward us with what seemed to be increasing speed. Lightning flashed deep in the clouds closest to the ground. The last squad of 2nd Platoon disappeared into the tent.
The breeze began to pick up and I could feel the air temperature dropping. The 1st Squad of 3rd Platoon marched into the tent. My turn was coming up quick. Thunder rumbled as the storm clouds boiled forward. I saw a couple of the drill instructors talking and looking toward the storm as it was bearing down on us.
As the second squad of 3rd Platoon entered the tent, a sudden gust of wind kicked up clouds of dust and dirt all around us. Lightning struck the prairie west of us. The wind kicked up dust and pebbles and blew hard against the gas tent, which strained against its pegs.
Our platoon drill instructor trotted toward us, leaning into the wind, his right hand holding his steel helmet on his head. “There’s an irrigation ditch forty meters to your rear,” he yelled above the howling wind. “Get there and hunker against the side! Keep your helmets on your heads.”
The men of the 3rd and 4th Squads, 3rd Platoon needed no further instruction. We all ran for the ditch, slid down the steep side, and pressed ourselves against the ground as the full fury of the storm descended on us. The temperature had dropped at least twenty degrees and large drops of rain pelted us.
Holding my steel helmet on my head, I peeked over the top of the ditch. It was a scene of total chaos. The cadets, even those freshly blinded by the gas, were piling into the ditch. A few drill instructors had taken cover under the truck. The wind buffeted the tent, and with one strong gust, the tent was ripped from its pegs. It tumbled across the prairie as white clouds of CS gas dissipated into the air. I slid back down, pressed myself against the wall of the ditch, and laughed.
The storm blew through in about an hour, and since the tent was gone, there was not much to do but march back to the barracks, wet, bedraggled, and shivering. Because of the tight training schedule, there was no time to recycle the two squads through the tent another day.
So I missed out on the opportunity to gain the added confidence in my gas mask, but I do not feel my life has been less for it.