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Training, Hydration Help Baghdad Troops Cope With Heat

"Hot" is when bottled water becomes almost undrinkable within 30 or 40 minutes.

Washington DC (SPX) Jul 29, 2005
With the blazing temperature dominating the headlines throughout the United States, troops in Baghdad, where temperatures typically hit 120 to 130 degrees, say they're getting a new perspective on what "hot" really means.

Army Sgt. William Howard from the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team takes a sip from a water bottle to help keep hydrated in Baghdad's blazing July heat. Photo by Maj. Russell Goemaere, USA (Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

"Hot" is when bottled water becomes almost undrinkable within 30 or 40 minutes. When Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams tanks leave imprints in the asphalt and boots start sticking to the roadways. When Humvees coming back from patrols through the city return to their forward operating base speckled with sticky tar from the streets, softened by the sun. When water poured on the sidewalk evaporates within seconds.

And hot is when, even in the middle of the night, the temperature rarely dips below 85 or 90 degrees.

It's "pretty brutal" for troops, Army Sgt. William Howard from the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team in eastern Baghdad told the American Forces Press Service during a telephone interview today.

Saddled with 40 to 50 pounds of gear when they go out on missions, including flak vests that add about 10 degrees to their body temperatures and Kevlar helmets that cook their heads, soldiers from the "Spartan Brigade" typically run four- to five-hour patrols with little reprieve from Baghdad's blistering sun.

Once, when out on a mission as part of the sergeant major's security detail, Howard remembers getting a few minutes to sit in the shade and rest. With his protective vest, Kevlar helmet and boots, the few minutes of respite "felt so good," the Dayton, Ohio, native recalled. Then he noticed a thermometer nearby; its reading: 110 degrees in the shade.

Air conditioning in Humvees - a standard feature in all up-armored Humvees that's also being installed in models with add-on armor kits - helps. But Howard was quick to correct any misconception that they make the vehicles comfortable. "Don't get confused," he said. "It's not that cool."

Gunners, perched atop the vehicles, have it the worst, because they're constantly exposed, not only to enemy threats, but also to the blazing sun, out of reach of the little air conditioning the Humvees pump out.

"We rotate them a lot to get them out of the heat," Howard said.

Army Sgt. David Winkle said noncommissioned officers play a big role in protecting soldiers from the heat. They constantly remind them to drink lots of water, to eat even when the heat has zapped their appetites and to get plenty of rest to keep their energy up.

Patrols all carry coolers of water, chilled with ice from the dining facility, and many troops have "camel backs," personal backpacks filled with drinking water. Some soldiers soak headbands and neckbands in the water and wrap them around their foreheads and necks to help cool them down.

"You drink all the water you can," Howard said. And then, under their leaders' watchful eyes, troops drink some more.

Sgt. 1st Class David Brissett, NCO in charge of medical operations for the brigade, said keeping soldiers hydrated is essential, because waiting until they show symptoms of dehydration is often too late to prevent heat injures. "Once that ball gets rolling, it's like an avalanche," he said.

The brigade has had only "a couple of cases" of heat exhaustion and no full-blown incidents of heat stroke, an impressive track record considering the conditions the troops are operating under, he said.

Brissett said he's been impressed at how well leaders are taking care of their troops. "We do the education, but it's incumbent on first-line supervisors to see that it's applied," he said. "The bottom line is, (preventing heat injuries is) up to soldiers on the ground and their leaders."

But preparing for duty in such grueling conditions starts long before the troops deploy, Winkle said. "We train throughout the year when we're not deployed," he said, with soldiers regularly training with protective gear and Kevlar helmets in the heat when it would be far more comfortable and cooler to train without them.

"Soldiers learn to cope," Winkle said.

And for many of the soldiers, who like Winkle are serving their second summer deployment in Iraq, the second go-around, with better food, better living conditions and more air conditioning, is a little easier than the first.

"It's not such a shock when you've already experienced it once," he said. "Your body already knows what it's like, and it makes it a little easier when you get that first blast of heat when you walk outside."

And as hard as it might be to imagine, Howard said the troops actually begin to get accustomed to the hot weather. "The more you stay out in it, the more acclimatized you get to it," he said.

When they return to their forward operating base after a mission, the troops strip off their sweat-soaked and salt-crusted shirts and savor the air conditioning that cools most offices and barracks, as well as their dining facility.

"It feels great," said Winkle, with a long, refreshing emphasis on "great."

For most members of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, the big day they're looking forward to will come in January, when they're due to go home to Fort Stewart, Ga.

But in the meantime, many troops have their short-term sights on September. That's when daytime temperatures are expected to begin dipping blow 90 degrees.

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