The week had been ramping up to this. All the prior training, all the talk, the boasting, and the detailed descriptions from my shipmates ran in endless loops in my head. I was next in line to get sprayed. The first guy just finished and was doing his best to breathe as they splashed the chemical from his face.
I stood at the “interview position,” hands clasped right over left on top of my belt buckle. I took two deep breaths, held the second one, and waited. The spray hit me on the forehead in two swipes, right to left, then back. At first, all I felt was the cold wet in the pale coastal Washington sun. I opened my eyes, and for the briefest moment, maybe two heartbeats felt nothing but liquid on my skin. I hope; the fleeting hope that maybe, just maybe, I’m one of the lucky few who don’t react at all to the spray. I’m quickly disillusioned. The fire crawled down my face and into my eyes, taking the flesh with it. I forced them open to focus on my attacker. My priorities drastically changed.
“OC! OC! OC! I’ve been OC’d! Where’s my partner? Where’s my partner? I’ve been OC’d! Where’s my partner?” I do my best to remember the script as a kickboxing bag strikes me on the left shoulder, and I damn near pitch onto my face. Change in priorities, I’m supposed to say something. I’m supposed to react. Another strike from the bag. Now I know why they make us use a training weapon.
I am going to kill all of them.
“Get back! Get back! I’ve been OC’d! Where’s my partner?” I feel something tear in my throat. Apparently, I was screaming. Peering through tears, sweat, and pepper spray, I line up on the kick bag. A quick strike with the heel of my left hand, “Get back! Get back! GET THE FUCK BACK! WHERE IS MY PARTNER?” I punctuate each “back” with a palm strike. I have to make a conscious effort to open my eyes, as every muscle in my face contracts. GM1 (Gunners Mate First Class) yells commands at me, and ME1 (Maritime Enforcement Specialist First Class) shouts encouragement and advice. I hear the command I’ve been praying to hear for the last 30 seconds.
“Draw your weapon!” I draw my orange non-gun and sight on my target. I sound off. As complex as drawing a firearm can be, adrenaline and pain can take a motion practiced only a few times and turn into fluid, deadly grace. The red plastic training gun, known colloquially as a “non-gun” or “brick” materializes in my hand.
“Get on the ground! Get on the ground! GET ON THE GROUND, OR I WILL FUCKING KILL YOU! GET ON THE GROUND NOW!” The part of my brain not dealing with the Armageddon on my face notices the school bus full of children parked next to the pier. They were giving tours today. Every kindergartener has their face pressed to the glass in shock.
“Get on his three, get on his three!” GM1 shouts. I swing around behind the target and keep the weapon on his torso. GM1 calls, “Time! Holster your weapon.” I do so, and immediately there are people on each side, one removing my belt and the other making sure I don’t fall down. I still want to kill them all. I am GOING to kill them all.
My face hurts.
I’m guided over to the water hose. The adrenaline spike begins to fall, and the pain truly begins to set in. It doesn’t penetrate even the first layer of the skin, but the nerve endings are overloaded with every heartbeat. There’s no reference point to focus on, no way to wall off the sensations and isolate them. Every time I blink, someone rakes a rusty scraper across my eyeballs. I peel out of my shirt and dab at the fluids streaming out of my face. The pain in my skin begins to recede to something I can manage. The endorphin rush dulls the knife edge of sensation. It is quickly overshadowed by the entirely different pain coming from my eyes.
OC spray is referred to as a chemical irritant. Irritation is a term I reserve for annoying tags on my t-shirts and bulletproof vests that ride up in the font. This is agony. It’s every over-chlorinated pool I have ever swum in, all rolled into one. I can feel the chemical as it rolls around in my eye sockets and gathers in the corners.
The pain stabilizes. They keep telling me to open my eyes and stare into the wind. Unfortunately, this also means staring into the sun. Perfect. Over time, I can keep my eyes open for longer and longer stretches. Forty-five minutes later, I’m in the car with my wife as she drives me home. The smell of the capsaicin is so potent that she has to open the windows. I lean over to put my head out into the car’s slipstream. The 50-mile-an-hour wind of our passage sends me into hyper-ventilating shock. It wasn’t painful, at least not in comparison to the initial spray, but it’s sensory overload as I flail at the window controls to try and get glass between me and the wind. The fumes build up again, and we repeat this little exercise twice before reaching the driveway.
Once home, I strip down and kneel in the tub with a bottle of baby shampoo. In case you’re unaware, the capsaicin oil suspended in the spray dries out and crystalizes on the skin. As it dries the burning effect lessens considerably. Water reactivates the crystallized oil; this is called a re-flash. I kneel in the tub and scrub my face with frigid water and baby shampoo gritting my teeth over the scream straining at my vocal cords. This goes on for 10 minutes or so. The cold water is every bit as unpleasant as the chemical in my pores. Every splash on my face makes me jump. After a while, it stops hurting enough that I can slowly turn on the hot water. The sweating drives the remainder out of my skin, and I feel it burn as it runs down my body, a sensation similar to tiger balm.
Soon I am on the couch with my wife and our dogs. The irritation has lessened to that of mild allergies. I slip in and out of consciousness with my pups. There is leftover Chinese to be eaten, and my only priority, in the absence of the pain, is self-indulgence.
Several Years later I was allowed to be support staff when our class was sprayed at FLETC Charleston.
The reactions were varied and entertaining. One guy who was a personal trainer and routinely achieved the fabled runner’s high got an instant endorphin adrenaline kick and couldn’t stop hollering “WOOOOO! I love it!” every few minutes. Another person, who’d never experienced any real pain went to his knees and then came up fighting.
My personal favorite was the prior marine. The liquid rolled down into his eyes and when the sensation hit all he did was blink and say in a perfect deadpan “Wow. This fucking hurts.” Which kind of set our instructors back a second. It took time but by the end, he was half folded up fighting off the kick bag with mucous and tears streaming. He claimed CS gas was more pleasant.
Supposedly the body is incapable of remembering traumatic pain, that the somatic forgetfulness is a defense mechanism. Watching my shipmates get sprayed I have doubts about that. My appendix burst when I was seven, on the whole, I think I’d rather do that again than be sprayed a second time. At least I got Jell-O in the hospital.
K.C. Aud has made a career of being lucky and has managed to find something positive in nearly every poor decision he’s ever made, even if it was only a new perspective on how not to do something.
Enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard in 2010 he became an Operations Specialist (radio and navigation) and did his first tour in Georgia guarding submarines from drunk fishermen. In 2014, tired of the heat and the bugs he transferred to a 210-foot medium endurance cutter in Washington state. The cutter then regularly deployed to the hot and buggy west coast of Central America to hunt down drug runners. Aboard USCGC Active he traveled 94,194 miles and personally handled enough cocaine to keep a small country high for a decade. Somewhere in there, he learned to write, if not spell.
Three years later, daunted by the prospect of spending the rest of his career in a windowless command center, he separated from active duty. After 13 different jobs ranging from beer brewer to dairy farmhand, to machinist, to Navy civilian contractor, he reenlisted in 2020 as a Coast Guard reservist, changing rates to Maritime Law Enforcement Specialist. When not helping the Navy assets in the Puget Sound troubleshoot radios, he’s on drill in Seattle doing water cop stuff and or flailing away at his keyboard. Though married and now a father, he misses the mission.
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