During my tenure on the Anti-Terrorism Force Protection Team for Southern California, I had the opportunity to participate in a number of interesting and exciting training revolutions. I got to learn knife techniques alongside the L.A. SWAT team, vehicle searches with military police units, and to gain proficiency with a number of weapon systems not traditionally employed by junior enlisted Marines in a combat zone like the M-9 Beretta and the MP-5. It was a great experience, and I truly valued the time and effort devoted by the military and civilian experts that came in to help us increase our proficiency and ability to rapidly respond to a terrorist attack; but there was one training event that remains a miserable memory to this day… qualifying to carry OC Pepper Spray.

Plenty of folks in the military and law enforcement can relate to the joys of earning the least-coveted of tactical certifications – as in order to carry that little bottle of misery around on your hip, you must first allow yourself to be pretty thoroughly doused in the stuff, and then demonstrate an ability to continue to perform the duties of your role in a law enforcement capacity.

In short, it means letting a guy spray you with a healthy dose of OC spray, and then completing an obstacle course that includes fighting off a number of opponents, maneuvering around the course, getting your hands on a firearm and effectively delivering commands to suspects while keeping your weapon, and burning eyes, trained directly on them.

Now may be a good time to point out that I’m the sort of Irish that sees potatoes as “a bit spicy,” and that can hardly survive the taste of a cinnamon Altoid.

Despite the fact that I’ve never ventured into the realm of peppers any further than what comes in the “mild” packets at Taco Bell, I was excited and optimistic about qualifying with OC. I may not like spicy, but I love obstacle courses, punching things in the face, and getting the opportunity to demonstrate my ability to assert my will on enemy combatants in such a fun way.

As I approached the field we were to train in, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like I was walking onto the stage of a military-themed episode of Nickelodeon’s Double Dare… and even as I watched a handful of Marines execute the course ahead of me, I remained blissfully ignorant of the horror I was about to endure right up until I was next in line. After all, the entire course could be completed in just a few minutes… how bad could it be?

Then I got sprayed in the face. The military police Master Sergeant tasked with leading the course delivered a perfectly executed “Z” across my eyes, nose and mouth, instantly leaving me gasping for air and cinching my eyes tightly shut. I had seen a number of Marines ahead of me instantly freeze after being impacted by the spray, a move I considered not tactically sound, as a real life or death situation likely wouldn’t permit you such an opportunity; so I responded to the sudden, searing pain that engulfed my face with sheer instinct and adrenaline… and attacked the man who sprayed me with a bull rushed, double leg take down, despite the clear instructions being shouted my way by other instructors attempting to corral me into the set parameters of the exercise.

The master sergeant, understanding as he was, threw me off of him, called me some colorful names, and commanded that I get to my feet and get after the first obstacle in the course. I attempted to shout an affirmative, only to find my ability to breathe still rather limited. Instead, I gurgled a whimpering something and set about my way.

Honestly, the course was pretty easy. Punch this, dodge that, kick that guy, don’t let the other one smash you in the face with that padded club, low crawl, and so forth. At that point, I was already a brown belt in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, which meant that, even if I was a below average fighter, I still had lots and lots of experience running through these kinds of courses. As I neared the end, the pain hadn’t subsided, but impending victory numbed the burning a bit – it was all almost over, and I had almost won.

The problem, I soon learned, with completing the course was that it left me without a task to focus on. Instead of sheer determination leading me through the pain to the next challenge, I was now just walking around in a circle, trying not to get too much snot on my skivvy shirt and attempting to maintain my composure around thirty other Marines, each doing the same in various ways.

As you can see, I handled the situation by looking like an extra in a Cheech and Chong movie

Mike Tyson once famously said, “everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.” Having never been able to throw a punch as hard as Tyson, I’ve long relied on a slightly different manner of judging a person’s ability to function while in a panic: choking them out. As a person loses and regains consciousness, something I can say I’ve done plenty of times in training, it’s just about impossible to “keep your cool.” The man who wakes up after being put down violently has no concern for appearance or social standing – he’s panicked, frantic, and scared. Some people respond by sluggishly asking what happened, some respond by furiously denying they ever went out, and some folks, like me, tend to come out swinging. Deep down in my brain, I think that feeling of intense vulnerability incites a fear-reaction that doesn’t care if you’re an EMT or Jihadist… I’m going to try to deposit your nose in the back of your skull until I’m certain I’m out of danger. It turns out, pepper spray tends to affect people in a very similar way.

Some Marines sat silently, intensely focused on mentally detaching themselves from how their face felt. Others crowded around fans and dumped water on their faces (ill advised, as I’ll get to) in an attempt to make the pain subside, and folks like me stomped around the gravel parking area, fists clenched and scowling, behaving as though we intended to murder the person that invented that infernal pain-sprayer with our bare hands. I do recall a moment of mental clarity however, where I silently envied the stoic response the thinkers were able to manage. That level of mental control is worthy of admiration, in my book.

After a while, the pain began to subside, but we were instructed not to shower or let any water hit our faces for a day or two – as the OC spray we used was water based and would be reactivated if it got wet. Of course, in the desert wasteland that is Twentynine Palms, California, you may find yourself sweating merely from making the walk from your car to the door… and as I’d find, each drop of sweat brought with it a tiny reminder of the pain OC spray can produce.

Now, I’ve never been shot, but I’ve been told on more than one occasion that getting hit in a bulletproof vest or flak jacket often feels like getting struck with a baseball bat and comes with coinciding rib fractures to match. Breaking ribs is something I’m pretty familiar with… thanks to being the type of idiot teenager that managed to get hit by a car (twice) and one rough takedown in training where an opponent deposited me onto a folding chair carelessly left just outside the ring. Even one broken rib can leave you feeling utterly helpless, can make breathing a painful chore, and can take months or even years to feel normal again…

And I’d still rather you shot me than ever sprayed me with that awful demon snot we call OC.

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I realize many people respond differently to OC spray, and some are even immune to its effects. I also realize that a relatively harmless training cycle that left me whining for a few days shouldn’t compare to the months I spent in my teens recovering from getting hit by a car… but , again, I often couple mild salsa with a big glass of milk and that I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with broken bones over the years.

In the time since, I’ve wondered if my hatred for pepper spray was really warranted, or if maybe, like my distaste for spicy food, it was really just a matter of perspective – and mine has clearly changed as I’ve gotten older. That is, until a year or so ago when I was near a group of rowdy college kids that were pepper sprayed by police officers at an event I attended. I was probably thirty feet away, but as soon as the smell hit my nose I was sure.

Nope. I’m still too big of a baby to want to mess with that stuff. We all have our kryptonite.

You can watch the Marine Corps’ brief introduction to OC Qualification below:


Image courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps