The Crucible is the final training event at boot camp before a recruit becomes a Marine and until you pass that point you can only be referred to as ‘recruit.’ To this day, I think I would react quicker to that name than my own.
My platoon, 1040, and I had made it halfway through the thirteen-week training to, hopefully, earn the title of a Marine. We had accomplished seven grueling weeks of physical conditioning, martial arts, swim qualification and hand-to-hand combat training. Each day we were working towards the Crucible and slowly becoming the recruits we needed to be in order to succeed. My mind and body were hardening every day as my weaknesses were turning to strengths. I knew I needed the mental clarity and strength to accomplish our next training challenge: the gas chamber.
During week eight on Parris Island, I found myself standing in front of a small concrete hut in the middle of the woods with one way in and one way out. We had hiked miles to get there and were issued our gas masks followed by a Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear (CBRN) briefing.
Myself and twenty recruits stood in a single-file line at attention suited up in our gas masks, covered in sandflies as we were being screamed at and pounded by the summer sun. The chemical training we were about to receive would expose us to the temporary effects of what it would be like to be chemically attacked in war.
The door opened, and our single-file line hurried in to get through the chamber as the screaming from our drill instructors intensified. As my eyes slowly adjusted I realized the room was even smaller than it had looked from the outside. We shuffled in place until we were almost shoulder-to-shoulder lining the inside walls of the bare concrete room. The only thing inside was a Marine sitting in the middle of the room with a chemical protection suit and a single burning camp stove in front of him. The setting was eerie and surreal.
The door slammed shut and we had officially reached the point of no return. This was the calm before the storm.
We stood anxiously waiting for the Marine in the protective suit to put what appeared to be white crystals on the hot plate. The crystals quickly evaporated into a subtle white stream as it rose from the plate. There were about 30 seconds before I started to feel the initial effects of the CN gas. The burning started on my hands, I had naively hoped that the long-sleeve camouflage we were wearing would minimize the effects but that hope quickly disappeared as the burning intensified and started to creep inside the cuffs of my sleeves as it crawled up my arms.
My head, neck and the areas of my face not covered by the gas mask began burning and itching as the vapors engulfed the room. The training is designed to help you get comfortable in the equipment and teach recruits to properly fit, employ and clear your gas mask if and when the time comes on the battlefield.
But, just like everything in the real world and especially in the fog of war, things rarely go as planned.
In that situation, the worst-case scenario would be to not have your gas mask on when the attack comes. So, we were given the order to remove our masks. The gas immediately tore into my eyes as they began to burn and water making it impossible to keep them open. As I inhaled it rushed into my nose, ripped down my airway and filled my lungs. I was burning from the inside out.
Every breath made the next one exponentially harder. Some of the recruits around me began to visibly panic and I couldn’t blame them. It’s a foreign and terrifying feeling to have an invisible chemical grip your airway and make it difficult to breathe.
Just to make sure we were feeling the full effects of the drill, we were ordered to do jumping jacks. My body desperately needed oxygen but my irritated lungs were struggling. I had reached the point of panic and was presented with a choice: I could either lose my bearing and the little control I had over the situation or I could close my eyes and focus on the task at hand, the passing of the net second and the next slow and steady breath. One at a time.
This mental choice is one I’ve made many times since that day in the gas chamber. There are times when you are pushed to your physical, emotional and mental limit but you will always have a choice: to move forward or to stay in the exact same place that has you suffering.
It sounds cliché, but the past is truly the past and every second that ticks by is irreversible. It’s okay to struggle and have low points, in fact, those are the teaching moments that help us grow and ultimately define us. But as the dust settles it’s important to search for those silver linings and blessings that put life in perspective.