Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Forget Our Training, Did We?

My outfit in Vilseck, Germany, was on one of three posts making up what was then (and may still be, for all I know) the 7th Army Training Center, the other two locations being Grafenwoehr and Hohenfels. NATO troops trained there year-round, and once a year a huge exercise, "Operation Wintershield," involving tens of thousands of opposing forces, took place. When this occurred, our company gymnasium was converted into a lounge for General Officers. No kidding, just generals, and there were dozens of them.

One of the sections dealt with chemical, biological and radiological warfare (CBR). Among other things, this section had the use of a helicopter which was especially fitted for CBR - more specifically, for dispersing CS, or what we called CS gas. Exposure to this (chlorine and sulfur) would cause your eyes to burn and cause you to have coughing fits until your lungs were cleared. And for a while after that, too. If you got a good lungful you weren't going to smoke cigarettes for a day or two.

One day during an Operation Wintershield period, a friend who worked in CBR called me and said that one of the opposing armies had requested CBR support and the section had agreed to provide it. Did I want to go along for the ride?

I'd never been in a helicopter and thought it would be interesting. I asked for and received permission from the First Sergeant to leave my job and make the trip.

My friend (who was a Specialist Fifth Class, so we'll just refer to him as SP5) and I got into the helicopter and strapped ourselves into seats. One whole side of the helicopter was open, and the trip to Hohenfels was cold. SP5's seat was right at the edge of the opening and mine was directly opposite. Much of the center was taken up by a large white tank containing CS. At some point a lone soldier in a jeep, top down and entirely in the open, was spotted and it was determined that he was one of those who for the moment were our "enemies."

We put our gas masks on and as the helicopter swooped down on the jeep SP5 grabbed a hose with some special kind of nozzle affair. The helicopter tilted, leaving me looking almost straight down on the jeep, and SP5 soon sprayed the moving jeep with CS. The driver panicked.

We were close enough to him to see that he was carrying a gas mask and I am certain that he had been trained, as were we all, to put that mask on and clear it in a few seconds, no inhaling required during the process, but his instincts were wrong and he decided he would outrun the helicopter, ho ho ho.

His goal was the woods, perhaps a half mile of bumpy dirt road (or bumpy off-road if he chose) away. He dodged, sped up, and slowed down, but about once a minute he was rewarded with another cloud of CS. Eventually he reached the woods. He slowed the jeep down and jumped out, leaving the jeep to roll where it would.

Our last view of him sticks in my mind - he was standing at the tree line, looking up at us and giving us a one finger salute.

Hey, GI, they taught you about that gas mask for a reason.

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