Army Sgt. Joshua Farbro walked into the ring of rapidly yellowing vegetation to investigate the booms echoing through Kisatchie National Forest in Louisiana.
Other soldiers reported a staccato of noises and a cloud of smoke that rose above the tree line just outside Fort Polk.
Farbro arrived and collected rocks coated with an unknown substance at the center of a 30-foot radius reeking of chlorine. His latex gloves began to melt, he told The Washington Post on Monday, and acid tore into his esophagus and lungs. He passed out at one point and was rushed to a hospital.
Authorities later detained Spec. Ryan Keith Taylor, a 24-year-old soldier assigned to Fort Polk, in the April 2017 incident.
In June, after first pleading innocent, Taylor pleaded guilty to manufacturing and detonation of a chemical weapon, U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph said in a statement. The chemical was identified as chlorine gas.
Farbro testified in federal court in Lafayette on Monday before Taylor was sentenced to 135 months in prison, or slightly more than 11 years.
Initially, prosecutors said he could face up to life in prison.
Farbro was forced to medically retire after seven years of service, including time spent as a sniper on Fort Polk’s emergency response team. The injuries derailed a promising investigative career, he said, and a doctor told him his injuries could be fatal if his health deteriorates.
“I’m still trying to process it,” he said about the verdict, as he drove back to the tiny Southeast Texas town of Buna.
Chlorine is a naturally reactive chemical element produced commercially for antiseptic uses such as treating swimming pools and drinking water.
But it is deadly when weaponized in a gaseous form; it encounters moisture in the mouth, lungs and throat, turning the gas into deadly hydrochloric acid, said Brian Castner, a former Air Force bomb disposal officer.
It essentially scars and melts wet surfaces inside the body after inhalation, Castner told The Washington Post on Monday.
“Some people are attracted to [bombmaking] because it’s illegal and want to make something dangerous that they can avoid themselves,” said Castner, who authored “The Long Walk” and “All the Ways We Kill and Die” after his two tours in Iraq.
Chlorine gas weapons first struck soldiers in terrifying bombardments in the trenches during World War I.
Since then, most nations have turned away from the weapon, although rights groups and doctors have recently accused the Assad regime in Syria of shelling civilian areas with the gas.
Farbro’s retelling and court documents detail a bizarre incident of alleged amateur bombmaking by a junior soldier, using common ingredients to create the weapon.
A trio of soldiers was conducting land navigation in the Kisatchie forest, which authorities said has been partly deputized for Army use. The soldiers were about 300 feet away when they heard loud noises and saw smoke, according to court filings. They raced to the scene and found Taylor in uniform climbing out of a car, cellphone in hand, as if he was filming the incident, the soldiers told investigators.
After he was pressed for details, Taylor left in a car with some materials later recovered from the side of a road. He was later detained.
Farbro, a military police detective, soon arrived at the scene alongside an explosive ordnance disposal team, which cleared the area for investigation, he said.
He stood at ground zero and collected the contaminated rocks, which caused plastic storage bags to inflate and pop, the filing says. He and another soldier were rushed to a hospital to be treated for chlorine gas exposure. He later suffered a collapsed lung.
Authorities recovered an empty pipe bomb at Taylor’s apartment, along with a military-made training grenade fuze and smoke grenade, court filings show. There were other materials linked to chlorine in his car, the document says.
Castner reviewed a list of Google searches and descriptions of components in Taylor’s recovered journal that were recorded in his plea documents. They show a familiarity with explosives terms, but Castner said that Taylor appears to be an amateur.
Joseph, the prosecutor who investigated and brought the indictment, told The Washington Post that it was unclear whether Taylor had intended to harm anyone. He had a fascination with improvised explosive devices, fellow soldiers told Joseph.
Several soldiers recounted how he volunteered to build dummy IEDs for a training course on how to spot the weapons in combat, Joseph said.
Taylor’s attorney did not return a request for comment about Taylor’s potential motives or plans. A charge related to child pornography was dropped in the plea deal, the Associated Press reported.
Farbro’s lungs are laced with deep scars, and his lung capacity has dropped to as little as 20 percent, he said. He may require a transplant in the future, but doctors are concerned that chemicals still embedded in his system would spread to other parts of his body during surgery, he said.
He said he told the judge that, in a way, Sgt. Joshua Travis Farbro was “murdered” in the incident, and the newborn Farbro has to learn how to navigate the world all over again.
“I was going to go 20 years,” Farbro said of his maturing military career, “and I was trying to protect everyone else.”