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Chemical Warfare? Don’t Worry, Just Keep That Mask on Until ‘All Clear’

September 16, 1990

--- By SUSANNE M. SCHAFER AP Military Writer

FORT HOOD, Texas (AP) - Staff Sgt. Connie Martens barked out the chemical weapons drill to her two-dozen charges, sweaty young Army soldiers swathed head to toe in thick, green and black protective gear.

″Blister agent ... usually not fatal. Possibility of liquid use. ... We have the M2-58A1. ... Hold your breath, grab your M2-58A1. At that time you will start decontaminating your skin. Once you decontaminate your skin, no problem 3/8″ Martens told her troops in rat-a-tat style.

Some 15,000 soldiers from two armored divisions at this sprawling Texas fort will soon trade its rolling hills for the sands of Saudi Arabia. And Iraq’s Saddam Hussein might be their next instructor in the dangers of chemical warfare.

So the soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division listened intently to the petite sergeant with the booming voice - a chemical weapons expert with 15 years of service - as they got themselves and their gear ready to deploy.

″Blisters may begin to appear on your skin. ... Don’t pop the blisters. If you break the blisters, you have the secondary problem of infection. You don’t want infections out there, so just keep ’em covered like you’ve always been trained, like a normal burn casualty and you won’t have a problem. Any questions?″ she asked.

″Yeah, I’ve got a question,″ a voice sounded from the side of the huddle. ″What’s the standard for putting on a protective mask?″

Backs stiffened and eyes widened as a big-shouldered four-star general in jungle green and brown fatigues worked his way to the front of the group.

Gen. Carl Vuono, the Army’s chief of staff, had come to see whether his troops were getting the proper training before being sent in harm’s way.

″Who knows?″ Vuono shouted at the group, soldiers who’d rarely been quizzed by a multistar general, let alone the Army’s top commander.

″Nine seconds 3/8″ came a chorused reply.

″So what’s the signal?″ Vuono asked. Without waiting for a response, he then boomed out: ″Gas 3/8 Gas 3/8 Gas 3/8″

Ripping their black headgear from their belts, the soldiers squeezed their eyes shut add held their breath as they struggled to place the heavy goggles and plastic cover over their heads.

A few wouldn’t have made it in time. Most did.

″Not bad, not bad,″ Vuono said, checking his watch. ″Let’s try it again. Put ’em back 3/8″

As a few men started to remove their clumsy headgear, the muffled sound of ″Negative, negative″ emerged from the under the Darth Vader-like hoods.

Vuono beamed with delight - the soldiers had refused his order because he’d not given the proper command ″All clear.″

″Well done 3/8 Well done 3/8 I tell you, Tilleli, I’m proud of these guys 3/8″ Vuono shouted to their commander, Maj. Gen. John Tilleli Jr., who stood nearby.

Leaning on his brown and green cane - the general had recently undergone hip surgery so his staff had covered his hospital-issued yellow cane with camouflage tape - Vuono told the soldiers they were going a long way from Fort Hood, to a place much hotter than Texas.

And they also might have to go up against an opponent who has used chemical weapons before.

All hoods and goggles were still, trained on the general.

″I don’t know whether he’ll use them, I don’t know whether we’ll fight him. All I do know is, I don’t want any soldier going to Saudi Arabia that isn’t well trained,″ the general said.

″We’re damn proud of each and every one of you, and we wish you all the best and Godspeed as you deploy on Desert Shield,″ Vuono said, saluting. ″Good luck. Good job.″

″Tet-Hup 3/8″ came the command. As Vuono strode away, the rubberized soldiers stood at attention under shade of the scrub oak.

Then with the speed of a bullet, Sgt. Martens was spouting her commands again, getting her charges ready to move through the training booth that simulates a chemical weapons attack.

″All right men, move to the next area, move to the CS area. If you have any contacts, make sure you get ‘em out. We don’t want to make you cry. Just a safety precaution, get ’em out.″

AP-DS-09-16-90 1158EDT

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