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Non-conventional Warfare and Me

May 9, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

Israel's state-of-the-art defense.

"There are only three substances which threaten our country. Two are chemical and one is biological."

I was among a dozen and a half residents of Jerusalem's Old City attending a lecture/demonstration on "Non-conventional Warfare." The speaker, Luba, was a young, pretty soldier wearing a khaki green uniform. She spoke with a thick Russian accent in an official, pleasant tone that sounded more like she was giving a lecture on nutrition than on how to respond to deadly chemical and biological agents.

"The two chemical agents which threaten our country are nerve gas and mustard gas. The one biological agent which threatens our country is anthrax."

A hand shot up. "What about smallpox?" the bearded gentleman asked. "If smallpox is not a threat, why did 20,000 public health workers just get vaccinated with smallpox?"

Luba gave an indulgent smile. She was obviously used to this much-asked question. "According to our intelligence services," she asserted like a well-versed government spokesperson, "our enemies are in possession of only these three substances at this time."

I didn't know whether to feel relieved because smallpox is not an immediate threat or frightened because nerve gas and mustard gas definitely are. I had no time to decide, however, for Luba was forging ahead.

"You should know what to do in case of a chemical or biological attack. We will start with nerve gas."

"If you are wearing your proper protection, a gas mask and two layers of long-sleeved clothing, you will not be injured by these substances. However, you should know what to do in case of a chemical or biological attack. We will start with nerve gas.

"Nerve gas penetrates through the skin and the respiratory organs. It paralyzes the central nervous system. Symptoms of nerve gas penetration are:

  • Loss of control of body fluids such as urine, tears, and saliva
  • Uncontrolled tremors
  • Blurred vision
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing"

I looked around me. The audience, who only a few minutes ago had been joking about the hour's delay in starting the lecture, now looked grave.

The antidote for nerve gas, Luba explained, was atropine. A syringe containing atropine was included in the gas mask kit distributed to every Israeli man, woman, and child. If we noticed any two of the above symptoms, we were supposed to immediately inject ourselves with atropine.

Luba demonstrated. One end of the atropine cylinder was yellow, the other green. "You hold it like this, with the yellow end up and the green end down," Luba explained, "like the yellow sun above and the green grass below."

Someone snickered: Sesame Street chemical warfare prep.

Then Luba showed us how to inject our thigh, through our two layers of clothing, of course, and wait five seconds for the atropine to enter our bodies. Then we were to affix the empty syringe to our lapel by bending the needle through the buttonhole of our lapel, as Luba demonstrated, to show the emergency medical workers who would soon arrive that we had already received the injection.

Sitting there wearing a lapel-less crewneck sweater, I wondered what people not wearing an army uniform would do, and how long it would take the emergency medical workers to break into hundreds -- thousands? -- of apartments where families were cowering in their sealed rooms far from the front door.

Immediately, however, we progressed to mustard gas. "Mustard gas is spread as a liquid or as an aerosol. It enters the body through the eyes, skin, and respiratory system. Its symptoms are:

  • A strong redness on the eyes and skin
  • Strong irritation of the skin and lungs
  • Severe burns on the skin, which turn into blisters."

The bearded gentleman interrupted. "How long does it take for the burns to blister?"

Luba was well-versed in the answer: "Approximately two minutes."

"There is no antidote for mustard gas. You wait for the emergency medical team to arrive."

"And what is the antidote for mustard gas?" he wanted to know.

"There is no antidote for mustard gas," Luba answered, unblinking. "You wait for the emergency medical team to arrive. Meanwhile, you remove the mustard gas which has condensed on your skin with the aid of body powder. You go to the corner of the room -- because mustard gas is highly contagious -- and you apply the body powder to the exposed area. Then, using a gauze pad, you wipe the liquid substance away three times in each place, like this," and she demonstrated. "Be careful to dispose of the gauze pads in a plastic garbage bag. But don't worry, the emergency medical team will arrive and take care of you."

The bearded gentleman did not look reassured. "How long does it take from initial contact with mustard gas until death occurs?"

Luba knew the answer to that, too. "Three to four minutes."

Three to four minutes? I started doing the math in my head. It takes two minutes for the burns to blister. Then I have to get out my body powder, which will be in a carton among bottles of spring water (four liters per person recommended), cans of tuna fish and chickpeas, games and toys for the children, and reading matter to idle away the time until we hear the all-clear siren. Then I have to find the gauze pads in the first-aid kit, grab a plastic garbage bag (not even on the list of things we should supply our sealed room with), run to the corner, and start wiping -- all in one to two minutes.

Everyone in the audience looked grim.

Luba had moved onto anthrax. Not to worry, the appropriate antibiotic for anthrax would be distributed by the Ministry of Health in plenty of time.

The next topic was "protected spaces," in which all Israelis are supposed to sequester themselves within three minutes of hearing the siren announcing that Saddam Hussein has launched a missile heading our way.

In 1992, a law was passed requiring every new apartment built in Israel to include a "safe room." This is a room, usually a bedroom, constructed to withstand both a conventional and a non-conventional attack. The eight-inch-thick heavy metal door of the "safe room" resembles the door to a walk-in vault of a bank. The room can have no more than two exposed walls and only one, two-by-two-foot, hermetically sealed window. This chic, nouveau guerre design is a crucial component of every new apartment in Israel.

This chic, nouveau guerre design is a crucial component of every new apartment in Israel.

A woman in the audience piped up that not a single apartment in the Old City has such a "safe room." (I was thinking that my 900-year-old apartment was built in the good old days when warfare meant swords and bows and arrows.) So Luba launched into an explanation of how to make a sealed room from polyethylene sheeting and tape.

For most of us, who had survived the Gulf War here in Israel, this was old hat. In the wake of that war, in which 39 scud missiles had fallen on Israel with, miraculously, only one casualty, it had taken me three years and two bottles of acetate to scrub the tape marks off the walls and floor around my bedroom windows and door.

The grand climax of Luba's lecture was the demonstration of gas masks. As a conscientious citizen, I had shlepped my children to the nearest gas mask distribution center to exchange our old masks for the newest models a year and a half ago, upon receipt of the third post card reminding me to do so. I had no idea, however, how the new models were an improvement over the old until Luba's demonstration.

For the youth mask (for ages 8-14) and the adult masks (ages 14 and up), the most significant improvement was the addition of a tube for drinking water. The tube, protected by two valves, could be stuck into a bottle of water, and, after blowing out twice, could be used to drink water until the bottom two centimeters of the bottle (where nerve gas or mustard gas would settle).

The children's mask (for ages 3-8) is a truly magnificent concoction. Instead of an ugly, black mask that turns the human face into a monster visage, the new children's mask is a brightly colored red and yellow hood that fits loosely over the child's head and upper body. A yellow fan powered by a lithium battery pulls air through the filter and into the mask, keeping poison gas out by the principle of high and low pressure fields rather than airtight sealing. A pocket for crayons and toys completes the hood.

I viewed this new mask with tearful admiration, remembering our experience in the Gulf War. The night of the first scud attack, my four-year-old daughter refused to don her small black gas mask. My husband had to hold her down on the bed while I forced the mask onto her, kicking and crying. The next morning, the radio announced that the only casualty of the missile attack was a four-year-old Israeli Arab girl, who died of suffocation when her parents forced a gas mask onto her. Listening to this news, I sat by our radio and wept. For the rest of the war, we never again forced our daughter to wear her mask (although I never gave up trying to cajole her by decorating the mask with brightly colored wings and bows).

My morose memories were pushed aside by Luba's unveiling of the evening's tour de force: Israel's new baby protection. During the Gulf War, infants under the age of three had to be put into an airtight device that resembled a tiny, clear, plastic pup tent. There, no matter how the babies cried, their mothers could do little to comfort them. Israel's defense establishment, obviously taking this problem seriously, set about to invent a baby-friendly gas mask. Voila -- the ultimate in infant protection for non-conventional warfare!

The loose plastic hood, trimmed with bright colors, fits over the baby's head and torso, with sleeves for the tiny arms, so that the mother can hold her baby close to her. Powered by the same yellow fan as the children's model and working on the same principle, the baby mask has filtered air pumped in through a tube that clamps on to the mother's clothes. A nipple is built into the hood at mouth level, so the mother has only to fill the baby bottle (provided) and screw it into the valve behind the nipple. And -- the final stroke of genius -- a Velcro tab is sewn into the inside of the hood to attach a pacifier.

"In the end, our only real protection is God."

Gazing at this uniquely Israeli invention, I was filled with optimism. A nation which so loves its children must be very precious in the eyes of our heavenly Father.

Before leaving the room, I thanked Luba for her informative presentation. "In the end," I told her, "our only real protection is God, who protected us with open miracles during the Gulf War."

"I agree with you," said the pretty soldier.

We all filed out of the room, kissing the mezuzah on the doorpost as we left.


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