Taking the heat

July 29, 2006 by barbara

by barbara

A complete change of pace today. Apparently I have clothes-polar disorder.

It was a different world in my neighborhood this early weekend morning. Not many cars. Fewer emissions. More dog-walkers and bike riders. The occasional runner, grimly determined to keep to the clock. The temperature was moving steadily through the 80s toward today's high of 100 degrees. There was no hint of early-morning freshness. The air was thick with unspilled moisture and the going was tough.

As I walked, I got to thinking yet again about our troops in the Middle East. Specifically, Americans in Iraq. It's 105 degrees there now, nine hours further into the day than we are. Their highs this week are forecast to average 110 degrees, dropping to 80 or so at night. Desert heat. Not so bad, right? Ever been to, say, Phoenix when the temp is 117 degrees'"hot enough to require surgical removal of your clothes at the end of the day? Shorts and T-shirts. Not full military uniform and accessories.

Here's the thing. We're sending our women and men to fry their brains and souls in a hostile land (by every definition) on a fool's errand. Even if they do not become victims of bullets, blades or rockets, they are being tortured by the climate. War is hell. More so some places than others.

I came home from my walk. Deadheaded some flowers. Refilled the birdbaths. Then I went back inside my air-conditioned house. I did a little research, and this is what I found.

The Department of the Army
put out a memorandum in April. It was distributed to assorted commanders and command post surgeons. It opens by saying "The 2006 heat injury season is beginning." Sort of like the fishing opener, I guess. It goes on to say, "Even in non-fatal cases, heat injury can thwart mission accomplishment and cause significant morbidity." We can't have that, can we? For starters, that ship deck photo op deal might have been somewhat less effective if military personnel were dropping at George Bush's feet from heat exhaustion.

An attachment to that memorandum refers to TB MED 507, "Heat Stress Control and Heat Casualty Management." Grim. There is a provision for reporting cases of heat stroke and heat exhaustion through the Reportable Medical Events System (RMES). And a caveat that risk factors for heat casualties can change on a daily basis. That is not good news. Most useful, perhaps, is this: "USACHPPM and the US Army Research Institute for Environmental Medicine (USARIEM) have developed heat prevention products including informational posters and pocket guides." So soldiers would like, what, fan themselves with these?

I also learned that more than a third of Iraq military personnel suffer from migraines'"a number roughly twice as high as the general population. A Forbes article says many factors might contribute to this spike. "We hypothesized that migraines would be common among soldiers in Iraq because they can be linked with physical exhaustion, dehydration, abnormal meal patterns, exposure to fumes and extreme heat, among other things." Of some 2,700 U.S. soldiers interviewed, many reported that their migraines were still persisting, even three months after returning home, and for some, the migraines became more intense. Turns out health officials are trying to intervene before deploying troops by putting in place a migraine-screening program. Might I suggest the ultimate intervention, i.e., don't send them at all'"any of them?!

In a recent Washington Post piece, we are told that humans can make remarkable adaptation to heat stress. "(But) with soldiers serving in harsh desert conditions, adaptation is a significant concern for the military. 'Heat strain is probably the most pervasive strain you can encounter,' said (Michael) Sawka (chief of the Army's Thermal and Mountain Medicine Division'"who knew?). One study suggested that it can impair the body's ability to regulate itself in the future."

Clearly killer heat is a gift that can keep on giving. Our troops are in mortal danger every single day. It's not the Army's fault. They're doing the best they can. But does anybody care? Enough to make sufficient noise that someone will pay attention and keep them here?

What about yellow ribbons for our cars that say, "Our troops are dying by degrees. Bring them home."

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