Former Military Offer Insights on Extreme Heat and the Military Analysis

, Senior Climate Justice and Health Scientist | November 10, 2019, 11:58 pm EST
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You could say that I have a personal interest in the effect of extreme heat on the military. My family is no stranger to the Armed Forces. As a matter of fact, more than 20 family members have served in the military, including my four brothers–1 in the Army, 2 in the Navy and 1 in the Air Force.

My grandfather and two of my great uncles fought in World War II; and my uncles, one of whom is a Vietnam veteran, served in the Air Force and the Army. More than 10 of my cousins have also served, and among them is Lloyd James Austin III, a retired Four-Star General of the Army, Commander at Fort Bragg, and the first African American Commander of US Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. Another cousin served in both the Air Force as a General and in the Army.

I also have many friends who have served in the military. I am incredibly proud of all of them!

Given their history and experiences with the military, I was curious about their thoughts on the results of Union of Concerned Scientists’ new analysis, The US Military on the Front Lines of Extreme Heat, about the increasing threat climate change poses to the military in the form of killer heat.

I engaged in conversations with a number of “experts,” including my brother James E. Hollis, Chief Petty Officer (E-7) in the Navy; my cousin Anthony S. Martin, Section Sergeant (E-5) in the Army; and my good friend Rodney Hankins, Major in the Army who served as an Environmental Science and Engineering Officer.

According to the Armed Forces Health Service Branch report discussed in the UCS analysis, more than 90 percent of heat-related illnesses experienced by U.S. servicemembers occur in the United States. That data also pointed out that recruits experience heat-related illnesses at a rate six times higher than other enlisted personnel and that,  “Although numerous effective countermeasures are available, heat-related illness remains a significant threat to the health and operational effectiveness of military members and their units and accounts for considerable morbidity, particularly during recruit training in the US military.”

Because the analysis specifically mentioned Fort Bragg, Fort Benning and MacDill and some of my experts were stationed at these locations, (along with Fort Jackson, Fort Sam Houston, Fort Hood, Fort Bliss, and Fort Carson, and in Germany, Iraq and Afghanistan) it is important to get their perspectives.

Heat guidelines

When I asked the experts about the military’s guidelines for preventing heat-related illnesses, one person stated that the Navy has a heat stress plan and consistently measures for heat stress. Another stated that the Army guidelines have only improved since September 2000, and they always stressed good hydration and work/rest cycles to prevent heat injuries. As one expert pointed out, the existing Army guidelines are rigorous and must be strictly followed.

Heat exposure nationally vs. abroad

Some people will defend the exposure of soldiers–particularly during basic training–to extreme temperatures as a way of preparing them for deployment to areas where the temperature is always high. I asked my experts for their opinions on that argument and received some interesting responses.

The experts felt that extreme heat exposure, with the correct mitigation plan in place and if properly executed, will aid in developing a tolerance to the weather, allowing soldiers to perform wartime missions under the same conditions.

However, one expert, who had been stationed in Afghanistan, opined that currently, soldiers may be sent to regions that are too different from their U.S training locations to adequately prepare them. One expert also expressed concern about the soldiers who do not survive training in places with extreme conditions, saying that more should be done to keep our warfighters safe during training in these extreme conditions.

Anthony S. Martin, Former Section Sergeant (E-5)

Another conceded that extreme heat conditions the body to some extent, as long as supervision and proper hydration is first and foremost, but he also stated that the type of heat and humidity experienced during basic training at the US bases is totally different from the dry heat in Iraq or Afghanistan, pointing out that he worked in Iraq for over 8 years and the heat should not be compared to the humid heat discussed in the analysis. (It is important to note here that the UCS study includes all humidity levels and that both here and in Afghanistan those are going to vary widely from season to season and day to day).

However, it is also important to note that Afghanistan’s “dry” heat is very different from some of the places in the U.S. like Fort Benning in Georgia, where recruits are trained. One expert opined that the heat in the Afghanistan deserts felt “hotter” because of the dry climes, when compared with the “humid” heat experienced in some states.

Safety on US bases from extreme heat

Asked whether the growing number of dangerously hot days could challenge the military’s ability to keep troops in the United States safe while also ensuring mission readiness, the experts gave similar responses: adequate planning is needed.

If we continue to raise awareness and plan accordingly, the troops will be fine, one said. A second expert agreed, stating that the military will do what is necessary to keep people safe. Yet another pointed out that the temperature will have an impact on readiness, but it will also force the military to use creativity to simulate conditions to ensure that the technical aspects of readiness is not diminished. He further stated that the military adjusts to the environment regularly and will reduce the number of days personnel will be able to train outside. He also pointed out that training for heat exposure can be conducted in a controlled environment.

A need for mitigation & adaptation plans in the military

As a follow up to the above question, I asked whether my experts felt that the military should think about the need to develop tools for mitigation–methodologies to reduce the potential for adverse health effects from extreme heat for military personnel, particularly those in basic training.

Everyone agreed that mitigation and adaptation actions are necessary. One stated that the military needs to review the current policies and adjust/improve mitigation strategies based on data on heat injury incidence and prevalence and use science to prevent dangerous exposures.

A second expert, pointing out that he went to Navy Boot Camp in 1982 in Great Lakes, IL, stated that when the weather was too hot, the commanding officers made the soldiers in basic training stay inside and they canceled all outdoor activities.

One statement that I found particularly compelling was that, “as the heat index rises, so should the proactive actions of the military to prevent heat injuries, especially with new recruits.”

That expert felt that new recruits should not be exposed to prolonged high temperature until after they have received ALL of their basic training, and that training in hot climates could be conducted after the new recruit received his/her permanent duty station. He further stated that the best training to acclimate a soldier to high temperatures is at the National Training Center (NTC) in Fort Irwin, California.

(Ret.) Major Rodney R. Hankins, Jr., MPH, REHS in Iraq

He pointed out that most units throughout the US rotate in and out of NTC to train in “ideal” desert environments – in high temperature scenarios. However, he cautioned that this particular type of training is NOT for new recruits in basic training, but for units that may be called upon to serve in areas in the world that are dry and hot. He concluded that most soldiers would have ample opportunities to train in conditions comparable to hotter regions, well after basic training, and that there is not a major need for recruits to be unnecessarily subjected to conditions related to climate change that may lead to heat injury.

Vulnerabilities to heat stress

Because the statistics from the analysis show that military servicemembers who are either young, non-Hispanic Blacks or who are of Asian/Pacific Island descent experience above-average incidences of heat-related illnesses, I asked my experts if they had any thoughts on the subject.

My question generated more questions than answers, including: (1) Were other factors associated with the statistics? (2) What state did the recruits originate from prior to joining the military? (3) Did the recruits obey any recommendations for water consumption during the times of exposure to high temperatures? (4) What was the age group and length of time in service–because young troops are more vulnerable due to their inexperience and their willingness to take greater risks compared to a more seasoned soldier?

One expert stated that these statistics were in line with what he witnessed during his military tenure (his primary responsibility was to lead and train and take care of subordinate soldiers assigned to his unit) and believes some ethnicities/populations may be higher risk than others. He suggested that the military first plan, then train–with vulnerabilities and risks at the forefront of training.

Where do we go from here?

Asked for any final thoughts, the experts provided well thought out and logical recommendations. One shared the opinion that heat injury is preventable and all parties must perform all steps of an approved mitigation strategy for the strategy to be successful. Another opinion was that most logical people know we ALL must adjust to environmental conditions and if that calls for shifting basic training dates one way or another to avoid the hottest months for training new recruits, then that does not sound like too much to ask.

Finally, I will close this blog post with one expert’s statement: “I think it is good that we are looking into this. Manpower safety is a critical issue for the military in this age of global warming.”

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