MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif -- “Gas! Gas! Gas!,” rang throughout the Regimental Combat Team 5’s combat operations center aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, Dec. 13, 2015.
Marines and sailors, already in mission oriented protective posture gear, or MOPP, scrambled to throw their protective masks over their faces. Less than 15 seconds later, the Marines were back at work, operating as if everything was normal. Since the Marine Corps introduced gas masks in the early days of World War I, Marines have prepared themselves for the possibility of chemical weapon attacks but the threat continues to be as relevant today as it was then.
“What we did was simulate an enemy rocket with an unknown chemical in it,” said Gunnery Sgt. Apollo Thomas, the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear defense chief for the regiment. “It landed approximately five kilometers away and we were in the downwind hazard of it.”
To be safe, the Marines and sailors prepared for the notional gas attack to reach their position.
“Just in case, we wanted to make sure if it did [reach us], we would find out what it is and identify it,” the Leonardtown, Maryland native said. “Once we found out that we were in the downwind hazard of it we went into the highest MOPP level, MOPP level four.”
MOPP level four consists of a protective coat, trousers, boots and gloves with a gas mask to give the Marines maximum protection from any chemical agents.
“I think we should do this more often,” Staff Sgt. Byron Morris, a motor transportation chief with 5th Marine Regiment said. “It’s very uncomfortable and while I was wearing the suit I was like wow … it’s like shooting on the rifle range, how at first as you get in the shooting positions they’re uncomfortable. When you train to it and get used to it, you’re a steady shot.”
After the CBRN alert, Marines were sent out to ensure the environment was safe to operate in, the Marines tested the air with tablets designed to identify any chemical hazard.
“As our standing operating procedure, we assemble our CBRN reconnaissance, surveillance and detection teams,” explained Thomas. “Then we go out with the first mission of finding out if [the gas] is positive or negative. If it is positive, identify it.”
If the tablets come back with negative readings, some Marines proceeded to remove their masks.
“Just as a precaution, we started the unmasking procedures with negative detectors,” he added. “A couple Marines unmask for five minutes, re-mask and we observe them for ten minutes. If they’re good go we give the all clear for unmasking everybody.”
Without the immediate response to the gas, Marines have limited time before potentially becoming a victim to a harmful chemical.
“To me the most important aspect of reacting to a chemical attack is the immediate individual actions,” Thomas said. “That is donning and clearing the mask, passing the signals and using each other to check the masks.”
The headquarters company of RCT-5 used the time during Steel Knight to familiarize themselves with the MOPP gear.
“A lot of times as a headquarters company we’re busy supporting our battalions to provide them with good training,” he stated. “So it’s hard to find time to get our [CBRN] training in so this was a good opportunity.”
The training is also an important step for the Marines who may be deploying in the future.
“We’ve got guys going out … possibly in harm’s way,” Thomas said. “Who knows what the enemy has over there? Some of this can really happen in real-life so they need to be ready to protect themselves and protect each other.”
The valuable training in the sands of Twentynine Palms helps prepare the Marines to defend themselves from chemical attacks and to continue to execute the missions of the U.S. Marine Corps in any clime or place.