Heat of Battle Takes Toll on U.S. Forces
In two days of combat, U.S. Army Spc. Steve Koetting dodged bullets, overcame sleep deprivation and endured the stress of fighting grave-to-grave in a cemetery against an enemy who rarely showed his face.
In the end, however, it was Iraq’s oppressive heat that put the 21-year-old soldier on his back and out of the fight.
Koetting is one of about half a dozen soldiers who have been evacuated from the front line in recent days because of heat exhaustion and related problems. Several dozen more have been treated on the battlefield in this south-central Iraqi city, where U.S. troops and armed followers of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr are squaring off.
With temperatures approaching 130 degrees, medics fear that casualties will increase. “This could become a significant problem,” said Brian Humble, senior medical officer with a Marine emergency facility at a camp just outside Najaf.
In the run-up to last year’s invasion, military strategists voiced concerns about fighting during Iraq’s unforgiving summer. By sending troops into Iraq in March and reaching Baghdad in a matter of weeks, the military avoided major combat in the hottest season. By August, operations consisted mostly of patrols and raids.
Even so, several soldiers died of heatstroke and other heat-related problems last year, military officials say. Now, with the resumption of battle in Najaf, the military is facing exactly what it wanted to avoid.
In addition to increasing casualties, extreme temperatures are a severe morale buster for troops. Tempers get short, behavior gets more aggressive and battlefield mistakes are more common, troops say.
“It really demotivates you,” said Koetting, who suffered from cramps and lethargy before being treated for dehydration Monday. “It’s by far the hardest part of all this.”
In the most serious cases, victims can become disoriented, lose consciousness and die. Military officials are so concerned about this that they’ve ordered officers to conduct urine checks of soldiers to look for signs of dehydration, Humble said.
Before arriving in Iraq, the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, trained in the California desert, and every Marine had to sit through a presentation on the risks of dehydration.
But nothing prepared the Camp Pendleton-based Marines for the Iraqi summer. In battle, troops can sweat about 2 quarts of water an hour, but the body can absorb only a bit more than half that amount in the same time, regardless of how much is consumed.
“So when you’re out there fighting, you can never get enough water,” said Capt. Sudip Bose, an Army emergency physician who has been treating heat-exhaustion victims in Najaf.
Body armor and equipment weigh up to 40 pounds and can raise body temperature by 5 degrees. M-16 rifles can heat up so much, they become literally too hot to handle.
In the cemetery where much of the fighting has occurred, the only place for soldiers to escape the sun is in sweltering Humvees and tanks or in some of the hundreds of large crypts and mausoleums, where photographs of the dead stare back at them.
“It’s eerie,” said Capt. Patrick McFall, standing inside a mint-green concrete tomb. “This is someone’s sanctuary.”
In the summer sun, Bradley fighting vehicles can turn into virtual ovens, with temperatures surpassing 150 degrees. Most of the serious heat-exhaustion cases so far have involved soldiers who fought on foot, then climbed back inside tanks, Humble said.
Ice, brought in coolers by supply convoys, is a precious commodity on the front lines.
“We’ve got nine guys in my Bradley and only room in the cooler for five bottles,” said Staff Sgt. Daniel Padgelt of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, which has been fighting in the cemetery for the last three days.
The unlucky must settle for warm, sometimes hot, water.
“On the bright side, it’s easy to make coffee in the morning,” said one red-faced soldier, sitting on top of his Bradley and holding a water bottle filled with coffee. “Want some?”