Hell on Earth: A Visual Guide to the Gas Chamber at Army Basic Training

Basic Training Soldiers enter gas chamber

Basic Combat Training soldiers assigned to E Company, 3rd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment, exit the gas chamber after experiencing the affects of CS gas on July 8, 2013, at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The soldiers are exposed to CS gas to build confidence in their M50 series gas masks. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ronald Shaw Jr.

US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ronald Shaw Jr.

As a United States Army veteran, I’m sometimes asked by those considering joining the Army whether Basic Combat Training (BCT) is tough, and my response to that question is always the same: “You’d know if you went, pussy.”

I’m kidding. My response to that question, in truth, is that BCT, as a whole, isn’t tough. Basically, you get yelled at a lot and do a bunch of pushups. There is, however, one particular part of the training that I wouldn’t repeat again no matter how much Tri-Care you offered me — the gas chamber.

To prepare future soldiers for the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare, the US Army incorporated a training event into BCT in which drill sergeants toss trainees into a room filled with CS (orto-chlorobenzylidene-malononitrile) gas. Whoever does not suffer an immensely painful death gets to be a soldier.

Kidding, again … or am I?

I often fail to impart upon the uninitiated just how much the gas chamber sucks. Words just don’t do it justice. Which is why I have compiled this step-by-step visual guide for future soldiers preparing to go through the gas chamber. Warning: Some civilians and airmen may find the following images shocking and disturbing.

A False Sense of Hope

Basic Training Soldiers enter gas chamber

Basic Combat Training soldiers assigned to E Company, 3rd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment, wait to enter the gas chamber on July 8, 2013, at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The soldiers are exposed to CS gas to build confidence in their M50 series gas masks. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ronald Shaw Jr.

US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ronald Shaw Jr.

Before entering the gas chamber, your drill sergeants will instruct you on how to properly use your Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) gear. They will also instill you with a false sense of confidence by explaining that the gas chamber is not that bad and that they themselves go through it every training cycle. But they are lying to you: It is that bad. Remember that these are drill sergeants, and they derive their strength from the misery of privates.

Oblivious to the suffering that awaits you inside the gas chamber, you and your buddies will almost certainly stand around in your MOPP gear, cracking jokes and pretending to be Darth Vader, until it’s finally time to line up and enter Satan’s asshole.

The Calm Before the Storm

Gas! Gas! Gas!

Sgt. Colin Ellis, center, a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear instructor, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, leads the soldiers of his unit in various exercises while in the gas chamber during annual CBRN training, May 8, 2014. Soldiers are exposed to tear gas to build confidence in their M40 series protective masks. US Army photo courtesy of Spc. William Howard.

US Army photo courtesy of Spc. William Howard.

Upon entering whatever creepy old toolshed the cadre has converted into a gas chamber, the first thing you’ll notice is a drill sergeant stewing up some sort of concoction in the middle of the room. It’s not spaghetti; it’s pain, and you’re about to get a heaping helping of it. Bon appetit.

The second thing you’ll notice is that the gas seems pretty tolerable. It may nip at your skin, but by and large, it’s nothing you can’t handle. The cadre will most likely make you perform some type of physical exercise for its own amusement (and to prime your lungs for maximum inhalation), but at this point, the mask is doing its job, and overall, you feel assured that this won’t be that bad.

You’re wrong. It will be that bad. The pain train is coming.

Breaking the Seal/Just the Tip

Test your mask

Officers in the Chaplain’s Basic Officer Leaders Course put their faith in their protective gear to the test in the CBRN chamber. US Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Brian Hamilton.

US Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Brian Hamilton.

After the cadre has had its fill of watching you perform half-assed jumping jacks, a cadre member will instruct you to line up against the wall. A golden rule in the Army is that, any time you have to line up, something really awful is about to happen. Remember that. This time is no exception.

The cadre member will move down the line, one by one, and instruct you to break the seal on your mask and recite your name and ID number or whatever other random shit they want to see you try to say under duress. This is your first taste of that lovely chemical gas, and it will most likely be the first time you shit your pants, too. It sucks, but luckily, this phase of the process is brief, as the cadre will instruct you to reseal your mask before they move on to torturing the person to the right or left of you. But don’t count your blessings just yet. What you’ve just experienced was only the tip — a mere taste of the hellfire that will soon engulf your body and soul.

The Moment of Realization

Four - Gas - Edit.jpg

Staff Sgt. Artis Johnson, human resources specialist, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Theater Sustainment Command, breaks the seal on his M50 gas mask during a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear training event at Fort Knox, Kentucky, Oct. 21, 2021. US Army Photo by Sgt. Owen Thez.

US Army Photo by Sgt. Owen Thez.

No sooner than you’ve managed to clear all that spicy air from your lungs does the cadre instruct you to remove your mask completely. Yep, you’ve read that right. This is when the actual “training” begins.

Many are surprised to learn that the first thing that hits you when you completely remove your mask in the gas chamber is a massive wave of regret. The photo above is a perfect encapsulation of that very moment — the moment when you think to yourself, “What the fuck am I doing here?”

The Air Is On Fire

Basic Training Soldiers enter gas chamber

Basic Combat Training soldiers assigned to E Company, 3rd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment, react to the affects of CS gas on July 8, 2013, at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The soldiers are exposed to CS gas to build confidence in their M50 series gas masks. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ronald Shaw Jr.

US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ronald Shaw Jr.

So what’s it like being in the gas chamber without a mask on? Well, take one look at the gentleman in the photo above, and you have a pretty good idea. What you can’t see are the terrible thoughts swirling through this man’s head as he tries to make sense of what is happening to him — thoughts of friends and loved ones he may never see again, ominous visions of the afterlife.

It’s hard to explain the sensation. It feels a lot like being trapped in a burning building where every exit just leads to a room that your grandparents are having sex in. It also kind of feels like taking a bath in a trash bag stuffed with napalm and burning car tires, or catching your dick in your zipper, except your zipper is actually two lightsaber chain saws hooked up to a V-8 engine.

Time has a weird way of slowing down in moments like these, so it’s hard for me to say how long recruits are actually kept inside the gas chamber. It’s probably somewhere between five minutes and six hours, by my estimation.

You’re Not Leaving

Basic Training Soldiers enter gas chamber

Basic Combat Training soldiers assigned to E Company, 3rd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment, prepare to exit the gas chamber on July 8, 2013, at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The soldiers are exposed to CS gas to build confidence in their M50 series gas masks. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ronald Shaw Jr.

US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ronald Shaw Jr.

Once the cadre is satisfied with the amount of snot and tears covering your face, you will be instructed to line up again and then given very specific directions on how to exit the chamber. But there’s a catch: No one is permitted to leave until everyone is following those directions to a T.

Inevitably, someone is going to fuck up and not do the right thing, which will result in you standing there for an additional 15 to 55 hours. Your hand is on the door, but you’re not leaving — not until the cadre can verify that everyone is doing the right thing. In the meantime, you will continue to suffer.

The Escape

Basic Training Soldiers enter gas chamber

Basic Combat Training soldiers assigned to E Company, 3rd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment, exit the gas chamber after experiencing the affects of CS gas on July 8, 2013, at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The soldiers are exposed to CS gas to build confidence in their M50 series gas masks. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ronald Shaw Jr.

US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ronald Shaw Jr.

When you leave the gas chamber, you are instructed to calmly exit the room and flap your arms like a bird to get the excess chemicals off of your uniform. No one does that.

Instead, recruits frantically burst out of the door and scream for help from whatever deity they believe has the power to save them from their suffering. However, no gods come to your rescue, and eventually, you resign yourself to walking around, flapping your arms like a sad-ass penguin, covered in your own snot and urine. As you can see in the photo above, it’s not a good look.

Say Cheese!

CS Gas Chamber Training

Spc. Austin Rudd, a soldier with 2nd Battalion, 14th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, catches his breath after going through CS-gas-chamber training Sept. 20, 2019, at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. The squadron conducts the gas-chamber training annually to ensure soldiers are familiar with their equipment and ready for any conditions they may face on the battlefield. US Army photo by Sgt. Thomas Calvert.

US Army photo by Sgt. Thomas Calvert.

But at least someone is there with a camera to chronicle this momentous occasion! Do your best to smile, because you never know when some asshole staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine might use your photo in one of his articles.

Read Next: Watch This Rare Combat Footage of B-17 Bombers Raiding Germany

Eric Miller is a former Army Combat Medic from Parkersburg, West Virginia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history and has worked with homeless populations and veteran services throughout the state. He is an avid outdoorsman and has recently become interested in woodworking.
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