Playing the part
I know now what it’s like to live in a fishbowl.
Make that a sweaty, suffocating, claustrophobia-inducing piece of plastic wrapped around your face, otherwise known as a gas mask.
During Kunsan Air Base’s Peninsula Operational Readiness Exercise, airmen have to wear chemical gear whenever they leave their dorms. While I was there for three days last week to cover the exercise, so did I.
The suit includes thick pants, a jacket, a helmet, white cotton gloves underneath a pair of black rubber gloves, and giant rubber boots that rubbed the skin off my shins after a few days of wear.
Topping it off was a heavy, sleeveless flak jacket with a pocket for a 2-inch-thick guide to surviving a chemical attack — how to apply a tourniquet, what to do if your M-16 jams up, and a primer on the many chemicals that could be used in an attack, among other topics.
In all, the gear weighs about 30 pounds, though some airmen wear protective ceramic plates inside their flak vests that add an extra 15 pounds. Even in November, I sweated underneath all the padding, but airmen groaned when they talked about wearing it during the humid South Korean summers.
“It’s uncomfortable,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Mayfield, a maintenance crew chief. “A lot of sweating going on.”
He said trying to communicate through the gas masks is difficult.
“A lot of times when we’ve got pilots in the cockpit, we’ve got to scream so they can hear us,” he said.
Airman 1st Class Erick Lee said the trick to wearing the chemical gear is making sure you’re in shape and that it fits.
“You don’t just throw it on like a bag of potatoes. You’ve got to fit the gear to your body,” he said.
I could handle the bulky suit. The gas mask was a different story.
I felt like I couldn’t breathe when I put on the mask for the first time. The rubber smelled like inside of a dentist’s office, and sweat quickly formed and dripped down my face.
Some airmen say wearing the mask never gets easier. The best thing to do, they say, is try to forget about it and practice wearing it. Some even go for runs in the mask to condition themselves to breathing in it.
To condition myself, I put it on for about 15 minutes in the comfort of my air-conditioned hotel room. For a few minutes, I almost forgot I was wearing it, although I did get a headache from watching television through the curved face shield.
But airmen sometimes have to wear the mask plus the heavy suit for hours at a time during an exercise or when working downrange.
Next time I see an airman or a soldier wearing in one, I’ll look at them with an extra bit of respect. And I’ll be glad it’s not me.