Up in Smoke
SGT. 1ST CLASS PERRY VOORHEES
4-410th Brigade Support Battalion,
4th Cavalry Multi-Functional Training Brigade
Fort Knox, Kentucky
Just about every Soldier has experienced the CS grenade. While the gas may be uncomfortable, it's an effective training tool and everyone is OK after a short period of time — especially if they’re wearing a protective mask. I learned, however, that these types of grenades can be dangerous if you lose focus during training.
I was an observer coach/trainer (OC/T) with the Goldminers at the National Training Center (NTC) for three years. As the resident ammunition trainer, I provided training battalions with battlefield effects during their rotations. Training Day 14 of the rotation was big for us, and not just because it was the end of a long, exhausting exercise. This was the day we came together as a team and produced a one-of-a-kind training event — the brigade support battalion (BSB) live fire.
During this event, the training unit secures its perimeter and engages pop-up targets using everything from small arms to claymores, AT4s and even Apache helicopters firing live 30mm rounds onto the range. The unit conducts casualty operations, moving "wounded" Soldiers to collection points, as well as ammunition resupply. There are a wide range of activities going on, and OC/Ts supervise and act as safeties and coaches at every level. My responsibility was to provide battlefield effects for artillery, mortars and, perhaps most importantly, a chemical attack using live CS gas.
I usually recruited three or four other OC/Ts to help me "throw pyro," and most of the time it was the same individuals. We enjoyed this because we were good at it and had a great system. We would walk into the BSB area with cargo pockets and ammo pouches loaded with artillery and grenade simulators, yellow smoke grenades and our personal favorite, the CS riot control grenade. The CS grenade is made of rubber and feels like a slightly larger and heavier baseball, but not quite the size of a softball. There is a small safety switch on top that disengages the spoon after the pin is pulled. The CS grenades are fun to throw (like a baseball) and make a satisfying popping noise after they leave your hand.
Immediately after releasing the spoon, highly concentrated CS gas starts shooting out of the bottom. The gas causes the rubber grenade to do all sorts of unpredictable things. It might spin in place, shoot directly up into the sky, fly across the desert or sometimes just stay in place and burrow a little groove into the sand. They are designed to be thrown near a crowd and spread a heavy dose of gas all over without injuring anybody. The OC/Ts did not have protective masks like the training units, so our strategy was to deploy the grenade and then get away from it. Occasionally, we would eat a little gas, tear up and cough for a bit, but it was no big deal. I’d done this hundreds of times.
This Training Day 14 was no different than the others. My team and I walked into the BSB armed to the gills with pyro, ready to provide battlefield effects for the unit. We positioned ourselves around the battalion tactical operations center and waited for the voice in our earpieces to give us the cue. We tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, but by this point in the training, the unit had learned that when they saw a bunch of OC/Ts with bulging cargo pockets, something was about to happen. The idea was to provide a training effect where the Soldiers got to react to the CS gas and then put on their masks and continue with their mission. It's imperative when using these training aids that the Soldier taste or smell the gas before the mask goes on. We also used yellow smoke so Soldiers can react to the visual stimulus; but to be honest, at NTC, Soldiers throw on their masks when they see almost any color of smoke.
Soldiers are smart, which is why we’d try to get the CS as close to them as possible without just throwing it onto their laps. Our method was to go upwind of one of the corners of the tent and place a CS grenade on the ground. Usually, if you set it down gently, it didn’t react too crazily.
I had two grenades ready to go. As soon as we received the word in our earpieces, I threw an artillery simulator to signify a round had struck in the area. I then threw a yellow smoke grenade to show the round was full of gas. Finally, I placed a CS riot grenade on the ground to my right about 15 feet away from the tent. I stood in the corner, upwind, as I'd done many times before. I then threw a second grenade to my left near the yellow smoke. As I watched the white CS gas mix with the yellow smoke, I started to taste the gas, which meant it was time to go. I looked back at the first grenade I threw and saw it was stuck against the tent. I could barely see as I was surrounded by gas, but through the painful haze I noticed flames. The tent was on fire!
There was no one around me, and I couldn't yell even if I wanted to. Almost the entire battalion staff was inside the tent, putting on protective masks, unaware of the fire. I grabbed a double handful of sand and threw it on the fire. The flames were up to my knees and I could feel the heat as well as gas from the grenade blowing into my face as I stood directly over it. I kicked more sand onto the flames and used my other foot to pull the hot, burning grenade off the tent.
Though it felt like minutes, I extinguished the fire within a few seconds. I took a giant breath and tried to scream as my entire body was overcome by the gas. I ran away from the tent and directly into my second grenade, where I got another massive dose of gas. I then made a beeline for a clear area behind a Light Medium Tactical Vehicle (LMTV) and took a knee. My eyes were swollen, my skin burned and I could barely breathe. Everywhere hurt and nobody was aware of what happened. After the smoke and gas dissipated, I recovered enough to walk over to the tent to assess the condition. Fortunately, the grenade did not cause too much damage, just a quarter-sized hole surrounded by a couple of inches of soot on each side.
We were lucky. Acting quickly to put out the fire was crucial despite all of the physical pain it caused me. At this point, I’d been in the Army for about 17 years, which was long enough to remember all of the times a potbelly stove burned down a tent at NTC. I knew that a fire could destroy a tent and its contents very quickly, which was running through my head as I fought the flames. I felt very fortunate that this incident didn't end with a destroyed tent as well. The training continued that day without missing a beat, and my teammates kept throwing pyro while I took some more time to recover behind the LMTV. It was at least 45 minutes before the effects of the gas went away completely.
This incident was very significant for me, but nobody else was even aware that it happened until I told the story and showed the markings on the tent. I've used these training aids hundreds of times before and after the fire without incident. I was and still am confident using these munitions. However, that very confidence caused me to lose focus and become complacent. After this incident, we made sure to always place the CS and smoke grenades in an open area where they could be observed until expended completely. Remember to always pay attention to what is going on around you. I lost focus for a few seconds and learned this lesson the hard way. It’s one I’ll never forget.