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 the 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 ignorantly blissful 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.