It’s a gas, gas, gas…

During the Viet Nam era, many of my colleagues went through “boot camp”. Boot camp for me meant a basic training in the arts and skills required to be member of the U.S. Navy. Two of the basic skills that were “cancelled” because of weather were “Firefighting practice” and “Gas Mask experience”. The Navy training then was in my opinion, then, and, in retrospect, very good. Given the broad cross-section of young men (only men in my company), an instructor explained the the background of each element of the important knowledge. We took notes in an notebook that was always with us because it was tucked in the top of the legging that we wore to keep our uniform pants from dragging in the ever-present slush on the parking lot like areas where, when we were not busy with some other activity, we learned close-order drill.
I sincerely hope that those in my boot camp company escaped both the firefighting experience and the gas mask experience in serious situations.
In the Spring of 1969, the country was at war with itself over the War in VietNam. Students had been killed at Kent State University in Ohio. I remember where I was when I heard that news because my sister was a student at Kent State. In the pre-cell phone era, I had to wait until I could get off duty and get to a payphone to call my folks to find out that my sister was all right.
So, when I was “volunteered” to protect the old “Main Navy Building” (http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/main_navy_bldg.htm#2) from a peace march, I was less than thrilled. When the crowd control training started, OK, I can do that. When the weapons training started with “strip this weapon and reassemble”, I was less than enthusiastic. The big weekend arrived. They gave us a gas mask and a rifle and loaded us on a bus, drove us to Washington D.C. First person I saw when we got off the bus was a First Class Petty Officer, who said, “we are putting these away unless we need them”, took my weapon and tucked it in a closet. Prayers answered.
The building was closed. All of the doors and windows were supposed to be locked. They assigned “watch’s” as the Navy calls what the other services call “guard duty”. My watch assignment was as a messenger. While on my 4-hour watch (4-on, 4-off 24x?) I circulated to each doorway on the ground floor. I guess in those days we did not have to worry about drones and roof invasions. The guys watching the doors got to see lots of hippy guys and GIRLS going by. I got to see lots of hallway. Late one evening, while walking this endless hallway, I smelled a strange and pretty awful smell. “That’s tear gas” he says to him self, half-way through a breathe-in event. STOP. Mask out of the bag, onto the face, breath out to clear the mask, fix the mask to the head, continue breathing, continue duty. I rouned the corner to discover that the “command center” had opened the window to permit fresh air while the officers and senior petty officers smoked.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the National Mall, the Weathermen had vandalized the Treasury Building and the police/guard/NationalGuard had responded with a massive tear gas response. Prevailing winds and pervasive gas, probably gassed the entire area including the command center.
In reviewing the situation, I find that the Navy has moved the fire fighting and gas training to a large indoor center. My wish is that the Navy boot camp training continues to prepare our sailors for the unexpected events they may encounter.

Leave a Reply