That time I incinerated chemical weapons for a living* (*Almost)

You work in Antarctica, and you meet all sorts of people with all sorts of crazy jobs. And the craziest of them all, and the one that I actually interviewed for and was offered, was working on Johnston Atoll, incinerating chemical weapons.

I’m sorry, what? You might say. Where? All great questions.

Johnston Atoll is in the Pacific. According to Wikipedia: “For nearly 70 years, the atoll was under the control of the American military. In that time it was used as a bird sanctuary, as a naval refueling depot, as an airbase, for nuclear and biological weapons testing, for space recovery, as a secret missile base, and as a chemical weapon and Agent Orange storage and disposal site.”

STEEL BOX
A view of the JACADS facility during Operation Steel Box. The facility is used to dispose of chemical warfare munitions.

In the 1990s, it was used to incinerate chemical weapons, specifically VX and sarin.

So anyway, someone on the ice mentioned it to me as a place of employment. Turns out that they needed people with a chemistry degree to test the VX and sarin sensors. I happen to possess a degree in chemistry. So I applied. And they flew me to Texas for an interview. To be honest, I think they were kinda desperate. I don’t think working on a remote, crazy island was high on the list for most chem majors. The job would have been walking around the base all day, and testing the sensors over and over again, to make sure they work.

During the interview had to try on a gas mask. I think they wanted to make sure people didn’t freak out about that. Also everyone was issued some kind of syringes with antidotes, in case of an accident, that you had to carry around 24/7, in a fanny pack. However, there was no “inject yourself with antidote” part of the interview.

So as I mentioned, I was offered a job.

Despite the clear down sides to the position, there were some amazing perks. I think the salary was about $45,000/year, and all expenses were paid. Food, a room, medical care, etc. I can’t recall the final conclusion, but there’s always some question mark about whether or not one has to pay income tax when working in a geographical and political oddity like Antarctica or an atoll.

But the best perk of all was the R&R. You worked for two months (probably pretty hefty hours, like in Antarctica; employers quickly realize that it’s good to keep the populace busy). But then you got two weeks off, and the company would pay to fly you back to your point of origin.

Or you could take the travel credit and fly anywhere you wanted. All travel went through Honolulu. So I could have seen a bunch of Asia for very little cost.

They also threw in a few weeks of vacation, so I could have extended some of those Asia trips. And though I don’t recall any specifics, I’m SURE there was a hefty completion bonus.

I didn’t take the job though.

At that point, I’d travelled for quite a few years actually, and the idea of have more conversations like, “Where are you from? Where have you travelled from? Where are you going to next?” over a cup of morning coffee, only to move on and never see the person again, didn’t sound overly appealing.

But the other reason was the gender ratio. Eight to one, male to female. Back when I was in Antarctica it was still about two to one, and let’s just say that that was kinda noticeable. I didn’t pay for many drinks at the bar.

During the interview process, I asked one of the gals what it was like. She confessed to it being kinda insane.

So I didn’t do it. I still feel a bit sad about it. But only sorta.

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