Zama MPs face off against pepper spray
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 24, 2003
CAMP ZAMA, Japan — Soldiers from the 88th Military Police Battalion here say pepper spray hurts more than breaking a bone or getting a tattoo.
“I was thinking, ‘Get me an olive fork to pop out my eyeball.’” Staff Sgt. Ryan Fritz said after being doused with the spray last week. “I’ve never felt anything like that before in my life.”
Fritz and some of the more seasoned police at Camp Zama watched Thursday as battalion rookies grimaced their way through the same drills they’d endured in early January: pepper spray confidence training.
Starting next week, pepper spray canisters will be issued to on-duty Camp Zama military police who have completed the training.
The spray packs a powerful punch: an 18 percent to 22 percent concentration of oleoresin capsicum — a natural, oily, resin-like substance derived from hot cayenne peppers. It’s the same active ingredient in bear spray.
Once the use of oleoresin capsicum was legalized in Japan, it took about eight months to develop and implement the proper training and accountability procedures for military police, officials with U.S. Army Garrison Japan’s Provost Marshal’s Office said.
Thursday’s mandatory training was a make-up for MPs who missed the January course and for a handful of young soldiers fresh from basic MP training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
“I’m a little nervous about it,” admitted Pvt. 2nd Class Nicholas Baton, 22, who arrived on post five days before.
In the grass behind Yano Fitness Center, seven MPs — going one at a time — stood still and erect while course instructor, Staff Sgt. Jeremy Milton, squirted them in the eyes.
They couldn’t duck, turn their heads or raise their hands. An instructor on each arm led the soldiers through three stations where they had to perform offensive and defensive drills despite temporary blindness and the burning sensation enveloping their face. At one station, they fought off two individuals with their bare hands.
Ten seconds later, they wielded a soft baton and repeatedly struck someone in foam armor. For the last drill, Milton tried to steal each soldier’s rubber pistol. To pass, police had to open their eyes to find Milton, point the weapon at him and order him to the ground.
At the sound of the whistle, the soldiers were whisked into the men’s locker room. One groaned and another cussed. In the 30 seconds or so it took to finish the drills, their faces had turned the shade of a ripe tomato.
The shell-shocked police sat in a shower stall as two instructors doused them with cold water and milk.
The milk shower continued outdoors, where soldiers continued to soothe bloodshot eyes with two half-gallon containers of milk.
“The milk definitely helps,” Staff Sgt. Robert Soncini said. “Briefly.”
Soncini said the drill’s hardest part was trying to open his eyes.
“Your eyes feel like they’re welding shut,” he said.
One trick is constant blinking — soldiers were told to “strobe your eyes.”
“You just got to keep your mind on what you’re doing, try to block out the pain and hope it’s over fast,” Soncini said.
Camp Zama officials said the training is to encourage safe and proper use of pepper spray and to build confidence in a tool that’s less violent than a baton or pistol.
“Once they know what it feels like, they have a better respect for it,” Milton said.
Capt. Joshua Hamilton, the 88th Military Police Battalion commander who also completed the training, said that in a stressful situation, police would know pepper spray can be effective and may reach for a canister instead of a gun.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s a good tool,” he said.
The spray will be issued to Camp Zama MPs on law-enforcement duty.
Police said experiencing the effects of pepper spray was important, but they couldn’t get over the pain.
“I felt like I got the whole part of the seed juice from a chili pepper” in my eyes, 19-year-old Pvt. Stephen Fernandes said.
After pepper spray was sprayed in his face, Private 2nd Class Nicholas Baton of the 88th Military Police Detachment swings his baton at his padded attacker, Sgt. Justin Robbins, to defend himself during training at Camp Zama.
JIM SCHULZ / STARS AND STRIPES