By Yvette Pino
I always felt claustrophobic in my gas mask. My breathing would become stunted, like food going down the wrong pipe. To prevent hyperventilating, I had a ritual when masked: search for the built-in drinking straw with my tongue in an attempt to drink water. I’d unsnap my canteen holster with my left hand and unhook the exterior drinking tube on the mask with my right. My tongue would dance inside my mask, and I’d begin to produce an excess of saliva, another disruption to my breathing; my frustration would grow when I couldn’t wrangle the straw. It would jostle, flip, and stick to the top of my lip. My tongue would lunge out to capture the rubber tube, I’d bite down, and wedge it up between the one-eighth-inch gap between my front teeth. I would inhale my spit, snort air in through my nose, and tilt my canteen upside down, angling my head to get the best flow of water, and my gas mask asana was then complete. It was the right amount of distraction to make the claustrophobia less acute.
We’d become accustomed to hearing the air raid siren throughout the day, but we were especially aware of it at night. Interrupted sleep had become the norm, and the notion of a good night’s rest was nothing but a fairy tale. That night started out like they all had. We’d received our briefing, reviewed the guard duty schedule, and coordinated wake-up calls. Individually prepared uniform piles lined the aisles and were arranged in a firefighter style with boots unlaced, pant legs placed inside and scrunched down so we could lunge into them and be ready to move. At the foot of each cot sat rucksacks with butterflied flak vests resting on top. Kevlars were balanced strategically to be plucked suddenly. There were several camps located within a short distance of one another, and sometimes we could hear sirens faintly, in the distance, and would debate whether or not it was for our camp. Eventually the volume would reach the right decibel to confirm that the warning was for us—or not—and we would act accordingly.
It was lights-out, and most of us had faded off to sleep. Around midnight, the faded howl of the siren began; I wasn’t sure if it was real or if my sleep-deprived mind was playing a cruel game of air raid tinnitus. No one else seemed to be reacting. False alarm, I thought, and slumped back down, closing my eyes. Within seconds the warning cry, this time at the right decibel, found its way to our horns, and we were jolted from our slumbers in an instant rage of seek shelter, seek shelter, seek shelter.
Sergeant Quetot and I had it perfectly timed: 25 seconds from siren to tent flap. We slept on opposite sides of the tent and had agreed that we would be each other’s battle buddy each time we made the mad dash. The shelter was a 20-foot shipping container hugged by five rows of neatly piled sandbags. This is where all E-5s and enlisted soldiers from the headquarters platoon and the 101st Band were assigned to go. Every time the alarm would sound we assumed the threat was real and dispersed hurriedly, filling the container’s entire square footage, in full battle rattle, woven together like human chainmail.
Sergeant Quetot and I were one of the first groups to arrive, but we were separated moments after completing our canteen ritual as the soldiers surged into the shelter. I was pushed to the back as bodies piled in, and soon found myself compacted between soldiers with no room to move my arms. I panicked when I realized I wouldn’t be able to drink water as a way to calm my breathing. I would have to close my eyes and accept this fate. I convinced myself that it was only temporary and that soon I would be outside, with my mask off, taking in the sand-crusted air once more.
There came a dull screech, and the knuckled moan of metallic hinges bearing too much weight slowed time. I heard the pin rotate, the reverberating verification that open was now closed. The door was forcibly aligned and the judder of the latch, rotating downward, pushing into the locking fasteners, sealed us in with a finality that hushed the room as we collectively paused to comprehend what we’d just heard.
“Did they just seal the door?” someone up front said.
“They know better than that, right?”
“Everybody just stop!” I heard someone yell.
“They will realize it and open it back up, just calm down and shut up.”
It was silent with the exception of muffled breathing. We were lit by the subtle glow of the green clip lights fastened to our vests. It was like we were all counting down in our heads how many seconds it would take to walk away, for them to realize what they’d done, to turn around to correct their mistake.
No one returned. There we stood, stuck inside this corrugated metal box, contained, but so exposed.
Reality started sinking in, and some people ignored the plea for silence. I drank in the details of the moment, standing in the cargo container, memorizing everything I was experiencing. My knuckle scraped against the front-end sight of someone’s rifle, and my ammo pouch snagged on the handgrip of another. Every time someone tried to adjust positions, my shoulders would shimmy. I became a little weeble-wobble hoisted around, hovering in imagined elevation.
After a few minutes, an uproar of sighs and aghast exclamations from the front end started a second wave of panic.
“What is going on?”
“Oh, that’s disgusting.”
“Do not take off your mask! Do not, YOU CAN NOT TAKE OFF YOUR MASK!”
Soon the shock turned to concern, to reassurance, and back to concern, and finally to guilt.
“I know it’s hard, but you cannot take off your mask until the all-clear.”
“She won’t be able to breath anyway, she’ll choke on it.”
“Try to relax.”
“You try to relax! She’s trapped inside that thing with a pool of vomit.”
A collective gasp of disgust and sympathy sighed out in the acknowledgement of what was happening. Our posture slumped in unison. Time passed with only sporadic reassurances from the front. I wondered if she had stayed masked, or if all caution had been thrown to the wind.
And then the siren’s cry was muted.
We waited a few minutes more.
Never had the reverberation of swiveling metal been so resonant.
We had never been locked and sealed in that container before. I doubt the personnel on the other side anticipated the bellowed charge of the trapped soldiers as we spilled out in a furious rage. We must have looked like a scene from one of those horror movies where maggots emerge from punctured decaying flesh and swarm in every direction looking for their next place to nibble. It certainly felt like that. By the time I reached the front, it had already been established who was to blame. If ever there were a time to show disrespect to a non-commissioned officer, this was it. As soon as I stepped down and felt boot to sand, vignettes unfolded before me in a montage of accusations, consolations, ramifications, and explanations. Fury mixed with indifference mixed with fear.
I glanced to my right, and there she was, the soldier who had thrown up in her mask, being held up by the medic in an unrequited embrace. Her limp torso curved inward and her flaccid arms dangled to the side, and yet, she held onto her soiled mask. I wept without tears and was asphyxiated with melancholy. It was my friend and fellow cook. She was hard as nails, a tough single mother who’d distanced herself from stupidity and naiveté.
Looking back, I wonder if, in this moment, she was more horrified by the miserable experience of being trapped in her own vomit, or by the realization that her body’s vulnerability had betrayed her sturdy façade. Our core group gathered in an effort to comfort her, and we were dismissed, told to give her some space.
I walked away, thinking about her, thinking about all of us, and hoped that the masking and unmasking, this life of alarms versus all-clears, would soon be over and we wouldn’t have to live this way forever.
Yvette M. Pino served with the 101st Airborne Division from 2002-2006. She earned a BFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011 and will receive a certificate in museum studies from Northwestern University in 2018. She currently works for the Wisconsin Veterans Museum as the traveling art exhibit coordinator, serves on the Madison Arts Commission, and sits on the board of the National Veteran Art Museum.