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Heat weapon demo just another day at the office

Stripes reporter Jeff Schogol feels the burn at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., as part of a demonstration of the Active Denial System, a non-lethal weapon system designed for crowd control.

ALLISON HULL / S&S

By JEFF SCHOGOL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 28, 2007

MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — I’m standing downrange from a heat ray waiting to get zapped.

Why?

My boss wants to kill me.

Actually, he wants to know what this thing feels like. Secondhand, anyway.

Known as the “Active Denial System,” the heat ray is a nonlethal system meant to be an alternative to rubber bullets and other nonlethal systems with limited ranges, said Marine Col. Kirk Hymes.

Hymes is director of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate at Quantico, Va., where my fellow reporters and I are freezing our butts off on a drizzly Thursday morning to get a demonstration of the ray gun.

Marines in Iraq could get the system in 2008 after further testing and a legal review, and after U.S. Central Command decides whether the Marines still need the system, Hymes said.

Of the more than 700 people exposed to the beam in testing and demonstrations, only eight suffered burns, of which only two needed medical attention, officials said.

That means my chance of getting fried is less than one-tenth of 1 percent.

That’s a risk my boss was willing to take.

I am told the ray feels like opening an oven door or holding a hair drier in one spot for too long.

The 95 gigahertz beam only penetrates 1/64th of an inch of the skin, meaning it won’t harm internal organs, said Stephanie Miller, of the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Miller also said the beam will not cause cancer, birth defects or problems with fertility.

The latter issue was of particular concern to me after one of my colleagues back at the Pentagon suggested I wear a lead loincloth during the demonstration.

Despite all the assurances that the heat ray is perfectly safe, I still have to sign a waiver saying I acknowledge the “inherent danger” of being the target of a weapons system and I won’t sue the government if I injure myself trying to get away from the beam.

I had to sign another form saying the government can use images of me jumping out of the way of the heat ray, so look for me on YouTube.

After we see demonstrations in which the heat ray is used to repel a mock crowd and other shady characters, it’s time to face the fire.

Before I have time to ponder the merits of the lead loincloth, I am hit with sensation of standing too close to a space heater.

I step away, but on a cold day like Thursday, it actually felt good. Other people who experience the beam shared similar sentiments.

After the demonstration, Air Force Maj. Steve Lundquist, who is working on funding the program, said all the moisture in the air “attenuated” the beam’s effect.

Normally, the heat hits you all at once, startling you, he said.

When I get back to the office, my editor sounds disappointed that I enjoyed the experience.

Expect a story next week from the annual convention of the Pepper Spray and Taser Association.