Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri — protesters taking to the streets over the police shooting of an African-American man — and crowd control with tear gas, brought to mind something I wrote in 2008. My own experience with tear gas seems relevant to the situation. With some minor editing I am presenting it again.
Despite the Vietnam war being current, when I took U.S. Army basic training in January, 1967 it had a definite World War I flavor. We went through an infiltration course where we came out of trenches, then crossed a simulated battlefield while live machine gun bullets were shot over our heads. I guess the Army brass figured if World War I ever came around again we’d be trained for it. We also had gas canisters thrown at us. That wasn’t the first time we'd experienced gas. Our introduction to that took most of a day. We were taken to a place on the Fort Lewis, Washington Army base with several run-down looking shacks. I also noticed a sand pit with wire stretched over the top. “That just doesn't look very good,” I thought. I was right.
I’ve pushed a lot of this unpleasant experience out of my mind over the years, but here’s what I remember. We were marched, 10 or so at a time, wearing our gas masks, into a small shack. In the air was a thick mist of CS gas, also known as tear gas. We were told, “when it's your turn, take off your mask, say your name, rank and service number, then right face, put your hand on the shoulder of the soldier next to you. When everyone has said their piece, we will march around in a circle and out the door. At any time if anyone breaks rank and runs we will all be brought back to do it again.” After taking off the mask and gasping out name, rank, and service number, then marching around the shack praying for the ordeal to end, had any one of the group run the rest of us would have killed him. We stood outside with our faces to what breeze there was, our eyes watering and stinging.
A while later we went into a chamber filled with chlorine gas. We went in without masks, and told we had nine seconds to don our masks or die. Seemed drastic to me, and I’m still not convinced that stuff was really lethal. The capper was the aforementioned sandpit. We were lined up four men abreast. We had our masks in our carriers at our sides. We low-crawled through the sand, and then a canister of vomit gas was thrown amongst us. We had a few seconds to get our masks on. Some guys tried to jump up, and that’s what the wire stretched over the pit was for. A jumper would bounce right back into the sand. Several guys — but not me — crawled to the end of the sandpit, threw off their masks and ran for the nearby woods where they heaved. Some guys vomited in their masks. Not me. I had my mask on in no time, because I was watching the sergeant’s movements as he got the canister ready to throw. I had my mask on before the first fumes hit me.
After the training we were lined up in formation to march to our barracks. I looked back and at the edge of the wood line I saw a soldier skulking through the trees. I grabbed the snaps of my mask carrier. I told the guy next to me, Porter, “Get ready, we're gonna get gassed again!” Porter looked at me stupidly, and then the canister landed right by his foot. We had been told if we saw anyone throwing gas we were to yell at the top of our lungs, “GAS!” The hell with that, I was too busy getting my mask out. Porter made no move for his mask, but I had mine on before the gas got to me. He just stood there looking dumb, and when the gas hit him he headed for the woods. It took fifteen minutes of the sergeant hollering, “Porter! Come out! Private Porter, report for formation, NOW!” before they could convince him to come out of the woods, and even then he was suspicious he’d be gassed again.
What I learned about tear gas is that you really want to avoid it.