Fiery 15 minutes at nonlethal weapons course started with pepper spray
December 22, 2002
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — The first student to “get slimed” today will be our nonlethal instructor course’s smart aleck, Sgt. 1st Class Arthur McCabe.
His face dripping pepper spray, McCabe fights his way through the obstacle course. He isn’t smirking. He isn’t teasing. In fact, he looks pretty upset.
McCabe stumbles over to me, his eyes mere slits, tears streaming down his reddened face.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” asks the soldier from the, 32nd Infantry Regiment at Fort Drum, N.Y.. “It’s pretty bad.”
“Yeah, I’m going to do this.”
Before I can think of why, it’s my turn.
I face away from the black-shirted instructor. Assume a fighting pose, hands in fists by your face. Wait for the order.
Pivot. I have just enough time to see him scowling behind the spray canister, which is mere inches from my face and hissing liquid fire. Then my eyes slam shut.
I force myself to stand fast while the instructor traces wet, slow, stinking, incendiary loops over my face, over my eyes and mouth and nose and then down my neck.
“Go! Go! Go!” he screams.
The pain is instant and intense. Gagging and spitting, I stumble forward to the first obstacle.
The instructors are all hollering, but the noise seems very far away, like a Greek choir warbling doomsday tunes.
“Get your head up! Strobe your eyes!”
Strobe the eyes — you’re supposed to blink hard and continuously, to get the pepper spray out of the tear ducts. Except I can’t, because my eyes are welded shut.
But the instructors persist in their screaming, so I use every muscle in my face and force those lids up. Oh, bad, bad move — more of the spray leaks in. The additional pepper spray sinks into my eyeballs like toxic waste. Now I’m basically blind.
Meanwhile, I have another little problem. I’m supposed to be running, but I can’t get air into my lungs. That would be the promised “anaphylactic reaction” — a sensation of tightness in the chest that makes it hard to breathe.
My strength and my will are running down my legs like a scared puppy piddling on the carpet.
Wonder if there’s a scientific name for: Can’t … do … this?
In the military, of course, it’s just called “copping out,” and I won’t go there, even if I expire right here and now on this stupid course.
Keep running. Well, OK, keep trotting, then.
I’m desperately sucking wind. Mucous is pouring from my nose into my mouth, and I throw my head from side to side and spit like a lathered horse, trying to clear some of the mess from my face. My “battle buddy,” who’s now acting as my seeing-eye dog and leading me by the arm, winces as my goop hits his hand and burns it.
Someone puts a baton in my hand. That means I’m almost done. I grip the handle and weakly batter the legs and torso of the volunteer, who is wearing so much padding he looks like a robot. He’s laughing at me and pounding my head.
If it was real life, he’d be killing me and I wouldn’t care.
Last and hardest station: “subject control and compliance,” the takedown. Years of karate training come back to me in the crunch, and I disarm the stubborn sonnofagun and kick his legs out from under him (I feel a bit aggressive, for some reason).
He goes down scowling, to “Hooahs!” from the instructors.
Then I promptly forget the correct sequence of orders to deliver, which is “Face down! Cross your legs! Arms over your head!”
Ah, whatever. He’s down and I’m done. I just want to breathe again. The instructors laugh and give me a break.
Krueger blows the whistle, and 10 minutes and a thousand years later it’s all over. I can head for the hose.
What I don’t know — they didn’t tell us this part — is that it’s about to get worse. It takes at least 15 minutes for the pain to peak, Krueger says later.
Someone holds out a hose and I grab for it blindly, remembering just in time to tilt my head so that the spray doesn’t go back into my eyes. I hold the hose on my face as long as I can, until the next desperate person comes and I reluctantly have to pass it over.
The instant the stream is off the burning pain comes back, gripping even harder.
How different many ways are there to say, “This hurts like $#@$?”
I give up. Words fail me.
My vision has narrowed to a wet, bleary prism. In shattered fragments, I can see some students on their knees. Others double over, straighten, then fold in half again, like they are bowing to the great god Misery.
Some of my classmates are jogging in unsteady circles, trying to run away from the furnace on their face. A few of these accidentally stagger toward the road and only warning screams from the instructors pull them back.
I hear — can’t see — someone throwing up, and my own stomach heaves as the smell of vomit drifts over.
Stupidly, knowing better even as I do it, I start to hyperventilate, as if giant breaths are going to make the hurt go away.
An instructor warns me in passing: Knock it off. You’re going to pass out unless you can get your breathing under control.
So I start counting down from 100.
In for three. Blow it out slowly.
I promise myself that by the time I get to “90” it will hurt a little less.
It doesn’t work, but by “84” that weak, sick, about-to-barf feeling is a little further away.
Thirty minutes after the last person is slimed, the class is largely recovered and ready to compare notes. Some faces are flame-red, others barely marked, but everyone’s eyes are streaming and sore. One soldier leads another who is still totally, completely blind over to the group, so he can compare notes with everyone else.
Spc. Wylie Hightree, a military police officer from 204th Military Police Company at Fort Polk, sums up the whole experience.
“That was the worst 15 minutes of my life,” Hightree tells me the next day. “I don’t ever want that done to me again. I know if it does, I’ll be able to get through it, but I never want to feel pain like that again.”