STAFF SGT. ANDREA JOHNSON
Never have I experienced anything as frightening as being a heat casualty. I will always remember the way my body felt and the emotions that were running through my mind when I succumbed to heat exhaustion and dehydration. Paralyzed from my waist down, unable to move my arms below my elbows and eventually losing control of my bodily functions, my life flashed before my eyes. I thought about how selfish I had been to leave my children and spouse again for something I wanted to do, knowing they would rather I be at home. To this day, I cannot help but replay the entire near-death scenario in my head.
I was attending a course I had anticipated for months — doing everything I could to ensure I met all of the requirements necessary to prevent being sent home. Unbeknownst to me, a five-mile ruck march would take place within the first 48 hours of boots on ground. I know what you are thinking — “It’s only 5 miles.” However, a ruck march in full battle rattle with a weapon and 45 pounds of gear is no easy feat, especially if you’re physically unprepared for the extra weight or not acclimated to the heat.
Maryland was experiencing a heatwave that summer with record high temperatures. In an effort to prevent heat casualties, the ruck march was scheduled for the evening, about 3.5 hours after dinner chow. My plan was to carry a piece of fruit with me just in case my body felt like it needed the extra fuel. Unfortunately, schoolhouse policy prohibited food outside of the dining facility.
Since my specialty is healthcare and safety, I mentioned to a cadre member the dangers of conducting the ruck march without providing the necessary fuel our bodies needed. He denied my request and said, “You will be fine. It’s only five miles and our pace is about 19 minutes a mile.” I knew at that moment I was in trouble because I was already exhausted from being run in to the dirt since arriving at the schoolhouse.
The ruck march seemed to be going smoothly for the first three miles. I noticed our pace was a lot faster than was stated, but I felt great. About mile four, however, I started experiencing tingling and numbness in my feet. I pushed on and did everything I could to increase circulation to my lower extremities. Despite my efforts, the numbing and tingling sensations crept up my legs, to my knees and then my thighs. Eventually, I could not feel anything below my waist and fell backward.
I am not sure how much time passed from the moment I hit the pavement until I was given the proper medical attention. By the time the medic gave me an IV and the fluids started flowing, my arms and hands were paralyzed and my blood pressure had bottomed out. I actually heard the medic say, “We’re losing her. We may want to send her to the hospital.” At that moment, I decided I was not giving up without a fight. Fortunately, I was able to pull through.
I occasionally think about what happened that day, attempting to identify my failures as well as those of the Regional Training Institute that was responsible for preparing me before I attended the school. I know the outcome would have been different had my leadership taken a proactive approach to identifying risks associated with the environment and the schoolhouse expectations to pass the course. Unfortunately, I became the victim of the ever changing leadership and a lack of planning and communication between the RTI and the schoolhouse. The new leadership at the RTI took a reactive approach and implemented controls based on the failures of their predecessors.
My hope is no Soldier has to experience the anguish of becoming a heat casualty and leaders will identify all possible hazards weeks before an event. This incident has completely changed my outlook on life and amplifies the importance of risk management in keeping Soldiers safe.FYI
Heat casualties represent a serious threat to the medical readiness and fitness of military personnel, both in garrison and during deployments. Each year, the Army records hundreds of cases of heat-related illnesses, including some that take the lives of Soldiers. These injuries often result from individual physical training, PT testing, training exercises and other activities, including those recreational in nature.
Leaders must be held accountable for their Soldiers’ training and actions. They should incorporate risk management into every training event and account for the worst-case scenario of Soldiers not drinking water. Some trainees don’t know when to refill their canteens, some are unable to find water points during land navigation events and some are forced to either get water or “gut it out” to the next event. All of these issues happened in recent years. In the units involved, the needed policies and command involvement were nonexistent. This needs to improve.
Additionally, all cases of heat illnesses must be reported to the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center, as well as to the medical community. The more we know about these heat injuries, the better we can establish preventive guidance and training. As much as we know, and with all the information about heat illness prevention available to all Soldiers, we should be successful at reducing mishaps during the upcoming hot weather season. Whether at work or play in the heat, it’s important to reduce the risk of heat stress as much as possible and remain vigilant for signs that all is not well.Did You Know?
The U.S. Army Public Health Center provides heat illness information, along with numerous posters and other products, on its website at https://phc.amedd.army.mil/topics/discond/hipss/Pages/Heat-Related-Illness-Prevention.aspx