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June 11, 2009 / Maleesha Kovnesky

Part 7 – You Will Break

This is the story of the most miserable day of my life.

**********

The Marines break you down so they can rebuild you…the same way you were, but stronger, smarter, and hopefully fearless.  It takes some people a short time to reach their breaking point, and some longer, but no matter what, they will find a way to break you.  I didn’t think it would ever happen for me, but I was wrong. 

The girls who couldn’t adapt at all had already gone home.  Another girl, she would have been a great Marine, had fallen from an obstacle and broke her hip.  She was sent home.  We were slowly being reduced in number. 

Occasionally, usually in the evenings or in the middle of the night, someone would start to cry.  I never understood what they were crying about.  Hell, three months isn’t that long to be away from your family.  None of this was really that hard.  Come on, already. 

A routine existed in boot camp.  Each morning the day started, and each night ended with us laying in the rack at the POA until we were told to rest (now we could use our covers, because we were now skilled in the hospital corners).  What came in between the morning and the night was never known to the recruits.  We woke to noisy chaos in the morning, got dressed and ready to move in two minutes, and followed the orders that were given, whatever those orders might be.

One morning we woke up and were informed that it was NBC week (Nuclear Biological Chemical).  The purpose was to learn about the nasty tricks that mankind has derived, using Ns, Bs, and Cs; as well as how to implement them and/or treat them, should they happen to you. 

We started off by hiking several miles to a shanty in the woods.  It was raining, we were dirty and covered in bugs, we were hungry, and when we made it to the shack that we would be sleeping in, it seemed like a luxury hotel just due to the fact there were beds.  We stripped off our cold, wet cammies and laid them on the edges of the racks to dry overnight.  We ate cold MREs.  We went to sleep exhausted.   

Then morning came.  Our clothes were still wet, still cold, and a little bit crunchy with frost.  We had no choice but to pull on the frozen clothes.  When I pulled on my pants, they were too short.  And they smelled like cat pee. 

“I think you have my pants,” I told the recruit who was on the bottom bunk. 

She shook her head.  “Nope.” 

“These are not my pants,” I said.  “These are your pants.”  She was already wearing mine. 

A DI approached us and snipped “Why aren’t you dressed, recruit?”

“Ma’am, Recruit Williams has my pants.”

“Then I guess you better wear Recruit William’s pants,” she said. 

Fuck.  

Recruit Williams had a massive kidney infection, and that was why the pants smelled like piss.  I pulled on the pee-covered, frozen, disgusting pants and felt a little bit sorry for myself.  I decided that I hated Recruit Williams, because I was wearing too-short pants that she had peed on. 

Then we marched.

***

The first part of the training that morning consisted of book lessons on nerve agents, blood agents, and other nasties that would kill you if you didn’t immediately inject a syringe of atropine into your thigh (remember The Rock, and how Nicolas Cage had to stick that needle into his heart?  You’re actually supposed to stick it in your leg).  We learned about mushroom clouds, and what to do if we had the misfortune to be at war when a mushroom cloud appeared in the distance. 

Have you ever wondered about this?  Well, I will tell you what you are supposed to do.  If you see a mushroom cloud, then you have to lay face down on the ground, preferably in a gulley or behind a berm, and ensure your head is facing toward the blast.  After the shockwave passes, if you still are wearing your skin, you may then get up off the ground and continue your assault on the enemy. 

A brave recruit raised her hand.  “Won’t we be dead anyway…from like the radiation and stuff?”

The trainer’s response, “Yes you will surely die, but if you can survive the blast then you will at least live to shoot a few more of the enemy.”

Solid advice, I guess, especially if you’re trying to rack up a higher confirmed kills quota. 

Then we learned about MOPP gear.  (This is an important part…pay attention!)  MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) refers to five levels of “Oh Shit, there’s deadly gas floating in the air” and the steps you must take to prevent misery and death.  MOPP level zero indicates you have your mask and equipment on hand, just incase.  MOPP level four indicates you are fully suited, masked, and prepared for doom.  The levels 1, 2, and 3 are varying between those extremes.

We practiced donning our masks when someone yelled or signaled “Gas Gas Gas.”  If someone yelled “Gas Gas Gas” and you weren’t at the local burrito joint, then that meant you had about thirty seconds to get that gas mask on, cleared, and secured on your face.  We did this a few times.  The important thing to remember is to stay calm.  That’s right…deadly gas is floating in the air that could kill you, or burn up the inside of your eyes and lungs, or cause your future children to be born with two heads…BUT STAY CALM.

****

Then the hands-on training began.  It was designed as a hike through the woods, down the NBC trail, where several stations would be set up along the way to continue our training.  The training hike would end at the gas chamber, where we would enter and find out what it feels like to get gassed.

We walked down the trail and stopped at the first station.  We learned about a few types of gas grenades that we might encounter during our careers are Marines.  It was informative, and believe me this is the kind of thing you want to pay attention to, no matter how tired and pee-covered you are.

The training hike continued to the second station.  An NBC Marine waited for us at a little spot off the trail.  He had a plastic dummy next to him, laying face down on the leafy, cold ground.  “Come in close,” he shouted.  “This is important.  See this dummy?  This is your buddy.  He’s just been gassed.  We’re going to learn how to inject this needle in his leg to save him.”

The crowd gathered closer. 

“Closer,” he said.  “You need to learn how to do this.  This is your buddy.  You can’t leave your buddy behind.”

The crowd gathered closer. 

“Okay,” he continued.  “Your buddy is face down on the ground, so the first thing you need to do is get him face up again.  So grab him by the shoulder and roll him like this…”  He grabbed the dummy and yanked…

Popping sounds filled the air, along with white clouds of gas.  The dummy had been rigged with gas grenades.  The other drill instructors had been following close behind, and they were already in on the action.  Gas grenades were flying everywhere. 

I took a few steps backward, and stayed calm.  At least as calm as I could.  I knew the first thing I needed to do was get that effin’ gas mask on because what was about to be breathed was not going to feel good.  So I stopped, and shaking, reached into my pouch and grabbed my mask.  I placed it onto my face, tightened the straps, and cleared it. 

But the freak out quotient was too great for the majority, and there was a stampede happening that I was oblivious to.  The crowd was running like a herd of bulls.  Just as my mask had been cleared, I was knocked flat onto my back by a very large, freaked out recruit.  My mask stayed on, but someone else running from the chaos tripped over me.  The person who tripped over me, in an attempt to get back up and run, kicked me in the jaw hard.  My mask flew off and I took in a deep breath to get some air, and that’s the same moment a canister of gas landed in front of my face.  I sucked in poison and I wanted to die. 

I reached around for my mask and managed to get it back on.  Then I threw up inside of my mask.  A drill instructor who had seen the whole thing came up and asked if I was okay.  I shook my head.  My face burned.  My eyes burned.  And we’re talking burn.  Like the worst sunburn of your life, with the first layer of skin melted, and salt being rubbed into your eyes and nose. 

I stood there nauseated, dizzy, pee-covered and wearing a container of my own vomit on my face.  I couldn’t take it off because the air was white with gas, so I just continued to breath the rancid moist air inside my mask.

***

It was time for the gas chamber.  We stopped in front of the chamber and were ordered to take off our MOPP gear and leave it on the ground, except for our mask.  We removed our masks and I had a chance to sweep out any remaining barf.  Then we went into the chamber and they started to fill it with gas.  It was pretty awful, but we had to leave our masks off for one minute (I think it was just a minute, but I could be wrong) before we could put them back on again.  It sucked, mostly because this was now my second heavy dose of CS gas of the morning, and I felt like I needed my teddy and my blankey. 

***

After the chamber, we came outside to heavy rain.  We had to put our MOPP gear back on for the rest of the trip.  I found my MOPP gear in a deep puddle of mud.  Somehow, it was the only set of gear that had found a mud puddle.   MOPP gear at that time was extremely heavy to begin with, and now mine was soaked in mud.  I pulled on another wet outfit, and I didn’t cry, though I felt my soul starting to completely fall apart from frustration.

****

That night back in the barracks, I found that I had a case of chiggers, which are the itchiest thing I have ever experienced.  I got to go down to medical and get some cream for them which helped. 

****

I had spent the day covered in pee, mud, dirt, and frost.  Then I had been kicked hard in the face only to suck in gas, about a foot away from the canister.  I had to wear wet MOPP gear on a five mile march back to the barracks, and now I had chiggers chewing the place behind my knee. 

We had about thirty minutes of free time before bed.  Free time was supposed to be used for ironing, polishing, cleaning weapons, or writing letters.  On this particular day, I climbed up to the top of my rack, crawled under the covers, and sobbed.  I cried and cried, and it led to unwanted thoughts. 

I knew, just knew, I would never see my family again.  I wished that I had gotten along with my brother more.  I wished that I had gotten to visit my grandparents more.  All I could think of was this whole idea of joining the Marines had been a terrible mistake, and that I would hate myself forever because everyone I knew on the outside was going to die before I got the chance to see them again.  I cried, and cried, and cried.  I missed Montana.  I changed my mind, I wanted to move back and marry someone and just have babies and work at the restaurant.  I sobbed.  The whole rack shook, and other recruits came up to see if I was going to live or die.  Some offered hugs and helpful pats on the back.  I imagine it was really hard to hug me since I was balled up under the covers and on the top rack, but some of them tried to, and thanks to them for that. 

***

The next morning I woke up a new person.

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7 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. David / Jun 22 2009 6:35 pm

    Wow maleesha. Outstanding! Well told and very impressive. Thank you for posting this story.

  2. teeni / Jun 20 2009 10:18 pm

    I was kinda hoping there that somehow you got to switch masks with Recruit Williams after you barfed in it. That would have done justice to her for the pee pants thing.

    Seriously, I have to give you tons of credit, I don’t know how anyone gets through this stuff but you did and I enjoy all of your posts about it and hearing your views.

  3. Stacey / Jun 13 2009 9:40 am

    I would never be able to hack that. I am definitely not Marine material. I’d probably have cried my first day.

    I also would have made sure Recruit Williams got a beat down.

  4. bluesuit12 / Jun 12 2009 10:35 pm

    Kudos to you and all other military personnel! Wearing pee and vomit on your face? No thanks. I grew up in the south where chiggers are everywhere but strangely I don’t remember them being a problem for me. That being said, I still hesitate to walk in the grass barefoot.

  5. morethananelectrician / Jun 12 2009 2:02 pm

    This is word for word (minus the piss ocvered pants) the same as the day of the gas chamber for us in the Army.

    We would put our wet clothes in bed (or bag) with us to have them dry in the morning…it worked well and kept something SO gross from happening…that was disgusting.

  6. expat21 / Jun 12 2009 11:44 am

    How did you EVER get it together the following morning????

    Expat 21
    Expat Abroad

  7. crisitunity / Jun 12 2009 8:36 am

    Wow.

    I think this story may be worse than any stories you could have about actual combat.

    FANTASTIC cliffhanger. And I think you are awesome for staying calm and not running the hell away like the recruits who knocked you over and kicked you in the face.

    I’ll give you a virtual hug, because I know it’s the only kind you like.

    (((Maleesha)))

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