Heat injuries are so common among soldiers drilling on Fort Benning during the summer months that basic trainees are required to practice twice a day on how to quickly and effectively respond to life-threatening conditions.
With temperatures often reaching 95 degrees in the afternoon and the heat index pushing triple digits almost daily, soldiers must learn to recognize and react to the signs of a pending or actual heat casualty.
During last week’s heat wave, A Company, 2nd Battalion, 58th Infantry Brigade had about 15 heat-related injuries, according to Sgt. 1st Class Valentin Vildosola, a drill sergeant with the 2-58 on Sand Hill.
The exercise basic trainees use to keep their response skills sharp is called a “man down” drill. Here’s what it entails:
A soldier collapses to the ground. His eyes roll back and his body goes limp. His buddies immediately yell, “Man down,” alerting their commander to the situation. One person grabs a cooler containing mounds of white sheets that have been doused in cold water and kept on ice. The soldier is then stripped down to his underwear and placed on a gurney lined with fresh, cold sheets.
What happens next typically sends the victim into violent convulsions.
First responders target his main arteries. They wrap one sheet around his neck and one around each upper thigh. They stuff them in his armpits and encircle his head with them. This mummification process is complete only when several sheets are draped over the soldier. The average of three temperature readings taken at different points during the exercise is relayed to emergency medical responders. An ambulance is always summoned if the soldier’s temperature tops 100 degrees, Vildosola said.
Failure to quickly complete these steps could result in a multitude of short- and long-term problems. Death is a possibility, said Staff Sgt. Raymond Pursley, another drill sergeant with A Company, 2nd Battalion, 58th Infantry Brigade.
“You can get brain damage, internal damage. If the brain gets too hot, it can fry their brain,” Pursley said.
U.S. Army Medical Command requires that soldiers training and operating in warm weather, especially the South, have immediate access to coolers of ice sheets and plenty of water.
“If you’re not hydrated, then you’ll be dehydrated, and if you’re dehydrated, then you’re susceptible to a heat casualty,” Pursley said. “Water will keep you alive, especially in Georgia where it’s so, so darn hot.”
“They come from different parts of the country,” Vildosola chimed in, “so a lot of them are not used to the temperature and the humidity here.”
There were no Army heat-related deaths reported in 2008, though 192 soldiers suffered heat strokes and 683 were diagnosed with heat exhaustion that required medical attention, according to a memo filed recently by Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, commanding general, U.S. Army Medical Command in Fort Sam Houston in Texas.
Unit commanders are responsible for preventing heat injuries as well as recognizing the signs exhibited by soldiers in distress from the heat.
According to the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine, hourly fluid intake should not exceed 1 1/2 quarts and daily fluid intake should not exceed 12 quarts.
Army policy outlines specific fluid replacement guidelines for warm weather training. Heat categories and activity levels determine a soldier’s work-to-rest ratio and required fluid intake.
Heat categories are labeled 1-5 with 5 representing the hottest temperatures beginning at 90 degrees.
For an average-sized, heat acclimated soldier wearing an Army Combat Uniform in temperatures greater than 90 degrees, 50 minutes of easy work should be accompanied by 10 minutes of rest. According to the guidelines, rest means sitting or standing, in shade if possible.
Drill work, marksmanship training and weapon maintenance are examples of easy work.
Under the same heat conditions of 90 degrees or higher, soldiers engaged in moderate work — calisthenics, patrolling or walking on loose sand at 2.5 mph with no load — should only exert themselves for 20 minutes at a time then rest for 40 minutes.
That ratio changes as the work requirements increase. For every 10 minutes of hard work, for example, 50 minutes should be devoted to rest. Examples of hard work include walking on a hard surface at 3.5 mph with a load equal to or greater than 40 pounds and walking on loose sand at 2.5 mph with a load.
Vildosola said there are different categories of heat injury, namely heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
“A lot of them have pretty much the same symptoms but the one key factor that identifies them all is going to be the soldier’s temperature or the soldier’s state of mind,” Vildosola said. “That’s going to tell us pretty much whether he just has cramps but he’s alright. He might just need a little break a little fluids or if he’s actually going into having a heat stroke which could be deadly.”
Contact Lily Gordon at 706-576-6284