ABOARD USS TARAWA -- ABOARD USS TARAWA -- Americans have been able to live without fear from a nuclear, biological or chemical attack since the Cold War ended more than a decade ago. However, the Marines and Sailors of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) continually train for the possibility of a NBC attack.
During an exercise which simulated the ship being hit with an NBC attack Jan. 9, Marines and Sailors were required to have their gas masks ready for the assault at all times.
Once the NBC alarm came over the ship's intercom, all Marines and Sailors on board stopped what they were doing to don their gas masks.
"It caught me off guard because I was not expecting it at that time," said Sgt. Alex C. Sanchez, 23, a motor transportation mechanic with the 15th MEU (SOC), from Harlingen, Texas.
"Even though this was a drill, the Navy and the MEU didn't treat it as one -- they treated this as the real thing."
Sanchez did a similar exercise at Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif., where he was fully dressed in his Mission Oriented Protective Posture Level 4 suit for four hours.
A MOPP Level 4 suit covers the Marine's entire body and is able to protect them from a NBC contaminated environment. For this drill, Marines and Sailors wore their gas masks while at work.
The Harlingen native thought the exercise, which required everyone to wear their gas masks for more than an hour, was beneficial to everyone and was a good starter for NBC training.
"I thought this training was good because it let everyone walk around with their gas masks while doing everyday tasks," Sanchez said. "It also help prepare me for what we might do in the Middle East."
Along with Sanchez, Lance Cpl. Danny L. Espinoza, 19, an assaultman with Battalion Landing Team 2/1, a native of Lajunta, Colo., said walking around with his gas mask is nothing new.
"This is great training," Espinoza said. "This is something that we should continually train for -- practice makes perfect. When we go to the field, our gas mask goes everywhere we go."
Some Marines who have never been overseas began to realize the seriousness of being prepared for a possible NBC attack.
"It's nice to know that the MEU is giving us this training so that we will be ready in the future," said Lance Cpl. Chris R. McKay, 20, a small computer systems specialist who is a native from Woodland Park, Colo.
While this training helped the Marines and Sailors become more familiar with their gas masks, it also helped them realize the difficulties associated while wearing their gas mask when working, according to Chief Warrant Officer 2 Alex Robinson, NBC officer for the 15th MEU (SOC), who is a native from Carlsbad, Calif.
Some units within Battalion Landing Team 2/1 began preparing for the possibility of a NBC attack by wearing their gas masks when conducting physical training.
"By training with your gas mask, it helps Marines understand the difficulties of breathing while wearing it," said Cpl. Frank Apachee, 23, a rifleman with BLT 2/1, who is a native of Flagstaff, Ariz. "Running in your gas mask is a good mental check because it's a lot harder to breath with it on. When you're tired and out of breath, it takes a lot of discipline not to break the seal on your gas mask."
Other units part of BLT 2/1 have designated Thursdays as "gas mask Thursdays" when everyone in the BLT is required to carry their gas mask, according to Staff Sgt. Ronnie Smith, the martial arts instructor for BLT 2/1, who is a native of Mount Olive, Miss.
"Prior to coming on this deployment, we went to the gas chamber in the first week of December to help us prepare for a NBC attack," Smith said. "On ship we have had NBC training classes and we have also gone through NBC decontamination procedures."
Other units decided to use the drill as an opportunity for their Marines to wear their gas masks in their work environments. Whether it was turning a wrench on an AV-8B Harrier attack jet or working behind a computer, every Marine received the chance to wear their gas mask in the work area.
In addition to this training, NBC Marines from the MEU are going to give specialized training classes in the future about the effects of chemical agents and how to administer Atropine, an automatic injector to help prevent the effects of a nerve agent.
No one was immune from wearing the gas mask during the drill. Colonel Thomas D. Waldhauser, commanding officer of the 15th MEU (SOC), walked throughout the ship wearing his gas mask to see how his Marines were dealing with the situation.
"This training is as critical as the basic rifleman skills Marines learn in boot camp because the best way to combat NBC agents is with knowledge," said Gunnery Sgt. Howard Macaulay, the NBC chief for the 15th MEU (SOC) who is a native from Reno Nev.