YUMA, Ariz. --
A line of Marines donning their M50 joint service general purpose masks file slowly across the threshold of the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., gas chamber as the air wafts with visible CS (2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile) crystals. The crystals float in the summer draft and emanate from a propane burner set in the middle of the room by a Marine in his woodland Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) level-4 suit.
The scene could have been plucked straight from a Hollywood blockbuster, as the tension in the room is amplified by the enclosed, cinderblock walls and general sense of the unknown. For Marine Aircraft Group 13’s chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense team, the sense of nervousness seen in the eyes the incoming group of Marines is a familiar sight.
“A lot of Marines, especially the younger Marines coming from boot camp, ask a lot of questions because they’re nervous. They don’t want to choke or mess something up,” said Lance Cpl. Marco Luciano Romo, a MAG-13 CBRN defense specialist. “You can usually tell who the seasoned Marines are and who the younger Marines are, even though they’re in full MOPP suits.”
Busloads of Marines are shuttled over to the gas chamber, located near the MCAS Yuma pistol range, to complete the individual protective equipment confidence exercise. There, bleachers are in place for the classroom portion of the day’s instructions.
Topics covered by the CBRN Marines during the classroom portion of training include an introduction to the new M50 joint service general purpose mask, preventative maintenance checks and services, immediate action procedures, detection and decontamination, some history on chemical warfare, a MOPP class, and operational decontamination.
“Basically, we’re here to teach confidence. We want the Marines to have confidence in their mask and understand the gear they’re using in case of a nuclear, biological or chemical attack,” said Sgt. Brendan Bigney, a chemical biological radiological and nuclear platoon sergeant. “It’s all about readiness.”
Bigney’s responsibilities include making sure classes run smoothly, lending a supplementary hand to any Marine having trouble fitting their mask, and supervising the actual chamber exercise itself. With four years of CBRN experience, and more chambers completed than he can remember, Bigney recalls which MCAS Yuma-based squadron was his most memorable.
“My time with 371 [Marine Wing Support Squadron 371] was awesome, those Marines were as motivated as it gets,” said Bigney, a native of Woodland, Calif. “They would shake and go so hard that the CS [2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile] didn’t even seem to affect them. Sometimes I wondered if they purposely wanted to go through the training more than once because they were so gung-ho about it all.”
For the day’s most anticipated evolution, Romo was the CBRN Marine put in charge of manning the chamber. Donning his usual MOPP level-4 suit, he went about his regular gas chamber routine. He begins by setting up the propane burner to the perfect simmering temperature to keep the CS crystals from burning up right away, then maintains that environment by ensuring an even disbursement.
“Safety, in the chamber, is also always paramount. You really want to make sure that Marines don’t get hurt,” said Romo, a native of El Paso, Texas. “My other main concern is making sure everyone has good seal on their mask. So that when they get in, they automatically have confidence – You just want to make sure that the Marines don’t panic because the last thing you need is a Marine freaking out, trying to run outside.”
Panic is not a feeling the CBRN Marines are trained to endorse. On the contrary, the practice of confidence and composure is high up on the list of lessons learned at their military occupational school in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
“They constantly send us through the gas chamber at our school. They send us through a live nerve agent chamber, they take us to the field for several days where they did nothing but gas us,” said Bigney, who graduated CBRN school in June of 2009. “All of it helps us build that self-confidence and poise that we try to impart to the Marines out here today.”
Usually, each group of Marines is in the chamber for no longer than five to seven minutes. However, if the participants don’t follow proper procedures or directions of the CBRN Marine in charge, the meter can run for up to 15 minutes. For those who have trouble following instruction, asking for relief can only come through the pleading eyes behind the lens of their M50 gasmask .
Despite the comical moments in the chamber, the seriousness of the training isn’t lost on anyone, particularly those CBRN Marines in charge. The training is designed to prepare Marines for the very real threat posed by an amoral enemy with chemical or biological weapons.
“With the way the world is kinda turning, we feel antagonists are willing to go further with CBRN type of weapons. It’s our job to make sure we prepare our Marines for the worst case scenario,” said Staff Sgt. Aaron McCatty, the MAG-13 CBRN chief and a native of Tampa, Fla. “It’s important because the agents we know exist are so deadly and effective that we don’t have the luxury of relaxing our intensity, our readiness, or even our protective posture.”
Awareness and confidence in the training we receive today is crucial to mission readiness. In the Marine Corps, the ability to control anxiety and fear is just a part of another day in the life of a CBRN Marine.