Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

According to CNN, the guards who roughed up a Florida teenager at a military-style bootcamp, who later died, will be charged in his death. This incident, which took place around Pensacola, was a huge scandal for Florida which resulted in the resignation of Florida’s top law officer and the end of state-run bootcamp.

Apparently what happened was Martin Lee Anderson, 14 years old, felt ill and refused to continue exercising. After being roughed up by the guards (which was caught on videotape) for over 30 minutes, he passed out. To try to revive him, they used ammonia capsules (aka smelling salts) several times, even cramming them into his nose. Using smelling salts more than once or twice can cause serious health complications, and are not advised to be administered by non-medically trained personnel.

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He said the guards’ hands blocked the boy’s mouth, and the “forced inhalation of ammonia fumes” caused his vocal cords to spasm, blocking his upper airway.

The guards had said in an incident report that they used ammonia capsules five times on Anderson to gain his cooperation.

The intense ammonia fumes caused his throat to spasm and close, restricting his breathing until he suffocated and died. This was concluded by the second autopsy–the first believe he died of complications of sickle cell trait. Ammonia capsules are essentially ammonium carbonate, which when mixed with water or alcohol produces potent NH3 ammonia gas. It is this gas which irritates the nasal membranes, triggering an inhalation reflex. However, too much of this reflex can have the opposite effect, and close off air passageways.

[Side note: Ammonia tablets can be seen here, on a website that hawks them to weightlifters to use “before the big lift.”]


  1. #1 Rosie
    November 29, 2006

    “on a website that hocks them to weightlifters”

    You meant ‘hawks’.

  2. #2 Shelley Batts
    November 29, 2006


  3. #3 Ole Blue
    November 29, 2006

    I have always felt that most people can become prone to sadistic authoritarian behavior. I think the military boot camp style prison or detention centers need to be halted due to this type of behaviour.

  4. #4 Crudely Wrott
    November 29, 2006

    Once again ignorance of how various chemicals interact with human physiology proves fatal. “Guards” are notably not the swiftest gust in the storm. May they hang.

  5. #5 Roy
    November 30, 2006

    Jesus. That’s terrible.

    I wonder how many events like this we’re going to have to see before we realize the need for serious reform?

    As far as the boot-camp style prisons/detention centers go, I’ve read both good and bad things about them, but I actually tend to like the idea (Or, at least, what I’ve read of them. Many of them have a strong focus on rehabilitating and reforming criminals- something that traditional prisons largely ignore). I think that the problem in this case has less to do with it being boot camp style, and more to do with the sadistic, violent guards.
    These guards sound like they were bullies to begin with- it wouldn’t have mattered what style prison it was, they’d have been sadistic bullies regardless.

  6. #6 Shelley Batts
    November 30, 2006

    Roy, I agree. This was about the abusive guards more than the camp itself, however, a good argument could be made that abuse is more likely given the kind of environment that surrounds boot camps (tough “love”, don’t listen if someone complains of a pain, etc). The idea of discipline and structure is a good idea for some kids, just seems the implementation leaves a bit to be desired.

  7. #7 Roy
    November 30, 2006

    Re: boot camp environments-
    Hmm. Okay, I can see where you’re coming from. Boot Camps definitely seem to have a certain “macho” attitude associated with them, where the instructors/guards tend towards the “tough love” model you mention. This could certainly lead to abuses, as you’re going to pull in fair number of guards who see that model as a means of validating a mean streak or a desire to inflict pain on other people.

    On the other hand, I think that detention centers (traditional, or boot camp), in general, probably tend to be prone to abuse for exactly those reasons- positions of power over a group that the general public tend not to feel particularly sympathetic towards. I think an equally strong argument can be made that boot camps might even lessen the chances for these types of abuses, since the goal is supposedly to rehabilitate, instead of punish (loosely- to help instead of hurt).

    Now I’m going to have to do some research. I’m intrigued- I wonder how the recidivism rates compare. I know that recidivism rates for normal prisons is somewhere around 60%. I wonder how boot camps compare? I can see both sides- that discipline and respect for the law might aid in rehabilitation, but also that the hyper-masculine/macho behavior of drill instructors are exactly the kinds of behaviors commonly associated with criminal behavior.

    Regardless, you’re right- as it stands, the implementation leaves a bit to be desired (or, a lot to be desired, in this case).

  8. #8 Boot Camps
    January 21, 2010

    Why this things happen? I think they must shuffle their personnel and look for the right one for the training and the boot camps must know every conditions of their student. They need to consider what are those things that they need to know on each and every student regarding to what are their disorders are.

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