It's a good thing I'm not a serviceman stationed in Saudi Arabia.
I just tried on an anti-gas uniform at Fort Douglas, and when fully dressed I looked and felt graceless.I did it with the expert assistance of Capt. Terry Updegrove, chemical officer in the Training Division of the 96th Army, and Lt. Col. Dennis Dalinga, chief of the Training Division.
Updegrove kindly allowed me to use his own uniform, which was not a perfect fit, but gave me a personal impression of what it would be like to wear it.
If I were in Saudi Arabia, where the temperature often hits 120 degrees, I would have worn very little underneath. As Updegrove says, "In Saudi Arabia, one layer is all you wear. Jockey is not a big seller there."
So I kept on my normal clothing and donned the overgarment, pants and coat, using velcro and numerous ties, snaps and zippers. The overgarment has an outer shell that repels liquid and is worn over a charcoal-impregnated inner coat that absorbs dangerous chemicals.
"You actually create a mini-environment where the chemical agent is not," says Updegrove. "You have to be protected, because if the chemicals are ever used, it will be like being in a rainstorm."
I strapped around my waist two 2-quart canteens, which must be replenished often. There were detector strips on my sleeves and pant legs designed to show red polka dots when exposed to invisible chemical gases.
I put on rubber overboots with non-slip soles, designed to fit over regulation combat boots - then gloves made of impermeable rubber over a layer of cotton.
So far, so good.
Finally, it came time for the heavy duty stuff - the helmet, hood and gas mask. The soldier's manual says that every soldier must put the mask in place in 9 seconds. But Updegrove requires 8 seconds of his trainees, and the goal is 4 seconds. Pulling the hood over the head and zipping the front closed to cover all bare skin can take an additional 6 seconds.
I didn't even come close.
The "buddy system" is the only way to do it. The head gear fit me too loosely, but the captain explained that his head is bigger than mine, and that if I were in the service it would be measured to insure an exact fit.
When I got everything on, I felt claustrophobic panic - which lasted only a few seconds. I was afraid I would not be able to breathe easily, but found that everything was working properly, and so I gradually relaxed.
Dalinga said, "It is claustrophobic at first, but you get used to it."
Inside the suit, I could hear well, although my vision was somewhat obstructed - and others could hear me through my built-in voicemitter. According to news accounts, the suit weighs up to 15 pounds and cannot be worn more than 10 hours. Each member of the service at Fort Douglas wears it up to 6 hours at least once each year as a part of training procedures, and Updegrove claims that it can be worn for 24 hours in a contaminated environment.
"You can spend the night with it on - it's nice when it's cold."
Although cumbersome, the suit itself didn't seem to weigh as much as reported, but the head gear was totally intimidating. Although I was skeptical, Updegrove assured me that I could get around - "not as well as you can without it, but you can function."
It is even possible to eat and drink without removing the uniform. Since the first rule of the desert is to drink vast quantities of water - as much as 6 gallons a day - this is important.
It seemed to me as if I were wearing my own personal tent - from head toe.
Updegrove has complete confidence in it."The suit works. It keeps the chemical agent away from you. The mask works. The filters are the best in the world. They are uncomfortable, but this is a question of survival."
If the choice is claustrophobia or nerve gas - I'll take claustrophobia every time.