Thursday, August 30, 2007

Boiling point

desert training helps marines learn to cope with iraq's relentless heat

By Mark Sauer

August 26, 2007

TWENTYNINE PALMS – By 1 p.m., every metal surface was a skillet, every troop carrier an oven and every inch of skin was basted in gritty sweat.

Camp Pendleton-based Marines were patrolling a barren stretch of scorching Southern California desert on a recent midweek afternoon. They were preparing for a simulated attack the next morning, a high point in a month of training.

The goal: Get ready for what is waiting in Iraq, where temperatures reached nearly 120 degrees last week.

In this fifth summer of war in the Middle East blast furnace, U.S. Marines and soldiers continue to face roadside bombs, snipers and suicide attacks.

They also confront an additional relentless enemy: the heat.

The troops, meanwhile, fight on.

“You understand you're just going to boil in your own sweat over there; no use bitching about it,” is how Lance Cpl. Adrian Thompson, a Houston native who fought in Iraq last summer, put it.

If Marines have opinions about politicians fleeing the heat or the wisdom of the war, they keep them to themselves. Marines fight for their country and for each other, and they like to believe they are made of steel.

But even steel has a melting point.

On this hilly training ground 50 miles into the desert, four Marines already were being treated with intravenous fluids and ice inside a fan-cooled tent. A fifth was being airlifted back to the Twentynine Palms base hospital with life-threatening heatstroke.

Into the oven
Spending seven hours rolling through the desert inside an amphibious assault vehicle, dressed in full combat regalia, offers an appreciation for what a turkey experiences on Thanksgiving Day.

Battling the heat
Fans weren't working in some of the iron-hulled troop carriers that ferried troops to the mock battlefield. The only relief came from an opening in the roof.

One Marine said a sergeant showed a thermometer to the dozens of men packed into one of the carriers. It read 138 degrees.

“I thought it must have been 170 inside there,” said Lance Cpl. Emmanuel Romero, who was leaking sweat like a perforated hose.

“I drank four 'camelbacks' (more than 3 gallons) of water today. But I'm from Tucson. People who come from Wyoming or someplace like that, maybe they never get used to it.”

The military has been looking for ways to keep troops cooler in the desert theater of war since the March 2003 invasion. But if anything, it has only gotten hotter for Marines fighting in Iraq. The reason is their body armor has gotten better, meaning heavier.

A 2005 Pentagon study showed that up to 80 percent of Marine deaths in Iraq could be prevented by adding 7 pounds of shrapnel-stopping ceramic plates to the sides of Kevlar vests. So now combat armor – which also includes neck and groin protection – weighs almost 30 pounds.

To help reduce the number of heat casualties requiring hospitalization, the camelback water pouches Marines carry were increased recently from 2 liters to 3 liters, which means they now weigh nearly 7 pounds.

Eating to survive
Add a rifle or machine gun, ammunition pouches, a pistol, grenades, helmet, radio, night-vision equipment, flashlight, first-aid kit, knee pads, goggles, gloves and food, and it's no wonder a Marine needs up to 4,000 calories a day – twice that of an average man – just to maintain body weight.

“Drink water, remember to eat, drop the gear and find shade when you can – we preach that from Day One,” Cpl. Jonathon Smith said.

Smith said there had been “quite a few cases of heat exhaustion out here” during the training exercise, known as Mojave Viper. One reason was inexperience: “We have a lot of new people who have not been to Iraq yet,” Smith said.

The rule of thumb for Marines, who also guzzle Gatorade and pop salt tablets, is a liter of water an hour if they are not moving, 2 to 3 liters an hour if on patrol.

That means a lot of sweating in a place where bathing is a luxury.

Lance Cpl. Matthew Francis, who grew up in Temecula, went 60 days without a shower during his first tour in Iraq last summer.

“I don't think you can ever get totally acclimated to this kind of temperature,” Francis said as he suited up for another day in the desert. “Take a big old water bottle and dump it over your head – that's as close as you get to a swimming pool over there.”

Thompson said Marines rely on their families to send “comfort stuff.”

“You can't believe how handy baby wipes are in the heat,” Thompson said. “Often, that's the only way to get clean.”

The grime and pungent aromas of desert patrol were the least of concerns among the Navy medical corpsmen. They were treating heat-stricken Marines in the Basic Aid Station tent, the only cool, shady place for miles around.

“We've got four right now. We had seven one day last week, but this many heat casualties is not a lot when you have hundreds of guys out here training in this heat,” medic William Reese said. “Sitting in a Humvee in all that gear on a day like this, you are just baking.”

Signs of heatstroke
Sergeants are trained to watch for key warning signs – dizziness and disorientation.

“If they're bad off, they don't know where they're at, or what day it is,” Reese said. “Basically, they're so hot their brains are starting to shut down. They need hydration, salt, sugar, and they need to eat, which is the last thing they feel like doing.”

When a Marine's core temperature is 101 or below, the treatment is shade, water and rest. Between 101 and 103, it's IV fluids and ice packs at the aid station.

“Above 103, they are going on the chopper,” Reese said. “Every heat casualty we have out here is monitored over the radio by the safety guys back at the base. They hear 103 degrees and a chopper or ground ambulance is dispatched.”

If heatstroke isn't treated immediately, it can lead to organ failure, brain damage, even death.

More common are the headaches, cramps and fatigue of overheating coupled with dehydration.

“Treatment normally takes several hours. Then it's light duty for a couple of days and they usually are back and ready to rock 'n' roll,” Reese said.

By late afternoon, three of the four heat-afflicted Marines had been released from their IVs at the aid station and were refilling their camelbacks from a rig holding 2,500 gallons of ice water. They were stripped of their combat armor and camouflage tops.

One look in their eyes showed the lingering effects of ravaging headaches and fatigue.

A sergeant felt compelled to soothe the injured psyches of his men of steel.
“Don't feel bad about this. You did your mission; you did not fail us,” he told the trio. “You drank water; you ate. This was not your fault.

“Some guys are just more susceptible, that's all.”

The still-dazed Marines leaned against the shaded side of the water truck and watched in silence as the sergeant turned and marched off across the sand.


Mark Sauer: (619) 293-2227;


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