ANOTHER VOICE: Take a deep breath and think of Syria

“I think the American people are tired of war.”

John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State, said these words in a White House briefing last Saturday morning, just five minutes after I heard a retired general utter the exact same sentence on NPR.

I am one of those fearful people, a heartfelt lover and pursuer of peace, but I’m not naïve, either.

During my near-decade of military service, because of my training and deployments, I spent a great deal of time studying, training and preparing for biological and chemical warfare. It was serious. It was hard work. It was terrifying.

MOPP is the military acronym for Mission Oriented Protective Posture.

As medical personnel deployed in areas where there was imminent danger, my colleagues and I not only trained for the eventuality from a perspective of our profession, we also carried with us large duffle bags, about 35 pounds’ worth, of MOPP gear that we were prepared to “don” at any moment, based on a certain level of threat, in order to protect ourselves, and accomplish our jobs under horrific conditions.

Waking up in a foreign country to alarms at three in the morning, being told to don your gear to the highest MOPP level, without foreknowledge of a planned training event, ensured that our skills remained fresh and useful.

I remember sitting in my office, typing with the eraser end of a pencil, my hands encumbered with cotton liners and thick rubber gloves, taped tightly at the wrists. On top of my “conventional” gear — steel-toed boots, flack vest, utility belt and helmet — I wore many more pounds of stuff: charcoal-impregnated clothing, mask and hood, and a kit full of “detection papers” and “antidote pens.” We were never left at that level for long. It reduced our work production, and it was just “an exercise” after all, so we were safe.

Training was arduous, unpredictable and thorough. During many hours of classroom instruction, we were taught how to use our equipment, and then subjected to the field experience of an actual “gas chamber.” It was your responsibility to clean and assemble your mask. Done incorrectly, it meant varied exposure to a “mild” gas that caused extreme tearing and mucous production.

Bear in mind, when exposed surface areas are exposed, it’s not possible to wipe any crud away for relief; that only rubs it in and makes it worse. You had to stand in the open air, arms spread wide, while snot and tears streamed down your face, until the affects waned and you were allowed to wash.

We were lucky. Every training session was conducted with safety in mind. We were valuable military assets, after all, and not to be put at great risk. (That’s what our jobs were for.)

I recall the adrenalin rush I would feel every time we were ordered to deploy an “antidote” to ourselves or a person “affected” — pressing a large “pen” against the thigh hard enough to release the charge inside that propelled a 2-inch needle through the uniform pant and protective gear, and into the muscle, then pause while the medications were injected.

The training pens were free of any charge, needle or drugs, but in that moment, when the pen would “click” to let you know when you had pressed hard enough, you couldn’t help but catch your breath. It was scary.

My life never depended on this sort of intervention, nor any of the brave men and women I served with. We were safe, and lucky.

Families in the suburbs of Damascus two weeks ago were exposed to chemical weapons that they couldn’t protect themselves from. They had no military-grade equipment, no antidote, and most importantly, no warning. The agent used didn’t just induce extreme tearing and mucous production. Thousands of people ended up suffocating to death in a matter of moments, lying in their beds, untouched by any “conventional” force. They weren’t safe, or lucky.

I’ve seen pictures of Middle Easterners buying gas masks in fear and preparation for retaliation. Do they know how to use them effectively? Do they know how to care for the mask and install a clean, dry filter? Can they pull the masks over their heads, while holding their breaths in panic, then blow out hard to “clear” the mask with their last puff of air — no wait — now suck in and confirm an adequate seal? It seems fearfully inadequate.

I feel pretty safe. I know North Korea has missiles capable of reaching the U.S. They may have warheads primed with biological and/or chemical agents. The threat of total vilification and possible obliteration in retaliation keeps them from acting on that power. I hear passing references to “A new Cold War” with Russia that turns me cold inside. I can’t let those fears paralyze me.

Those fears make me hold those I love that much closer at every opportunity. Those fears make me think about problem-solving. They make me want to say and do something, like share my perspective and encourage honest and focused conversation.

The latest action report from Veterans for Peace states that any interference in Syria “deepens the suffering and increases the casualties among the Syrian People.” We are being implored to stand down in every way.

I don’t know what the “right” thing to do is. I do know that allowing our collective sense of humanity to be, once again, muffled and bogged down by the mind-numbing ineffectiveness of political tit-for-tat, guarantees that we are worse off as people no matter what we end up doing, or not doing, in response.


Amy Williams of Hood River is a member of Disabled American Veterans and Veterans For Peace.

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