Enduring the Elements
Excitedly, I boarded the bus that would take me to cold-weather medicine training. I knew this school would enhance my capabilities significantly. What I didn’t know, however, was I’d end up a cold-weather injury victim.
The air felt thinner as I stepped off the bus and saw snow-covered mountains in the distance. After a morning of in-processing, my classmates and I received our cold-weather gear. Most might assume there’s not much to this type of gear, but we received more than just boots, jackets and gloves. We were issued cool equipment like cross-country skis and special sunglasses. The instructors gave us a class on how to use the equipment and why these items were important. They also covered acclimatization, cold-weather injuries and shelters. Finally, we were ready to head up the mountain for field training.
As I packed, I remembered the instructors telling us that our gear was expensive and if we lost any of it, we’d be responsible for the cost. I didn’t have a lot of money at the time, so I decided to not take the supplied sunglasses. Instead, I brought my cheap personal sunglasses. I’d later discover that was a bad idea.
The first day on the mountain, we learned how to maneuver in the snow and build a shelter. During the first exercise, I wore the gloves I was issued, but my hands became painfully frozen after manipulating snow all day. I spoke up and an instructor gave me a pair of mittens. It turns out that I had a mild case of frostbite, but I charged on anyhow.
Day two was equally busy as we prepared for a mass-casualty exercise. For some reason — maybe because it was cold — I subconsciously disregarded the class we had on hydration and didn’t drink enough water. I paid for that bad decision and was dizzy and nauseated by nightfall. Dehydrated, I carefully replenished my fluids for the remainder of the evening. I was determined to not be sent home.
I felt better the next day as we headed farther up the mountain. The ride up was fun, as we held onto a rope that was attached to a snowmobile; however, we were expected to get down the hill on our own. It was a great day of training but my eyes were burning and sensitive to light by the time we finished. I found an instructor and reported my condition. He sat me in a tent to rest and recover from snow blindness, a condition caused by not wearing proper eye protection when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This type of injury is related to the intensity of the sun, not the air temperature. Snow blindness can degrade a Soldier’s performance due to blurred vision, pain, tearing and a headache. It can be also be prevented with the use of sunglasses or goggles that block more than 90 percent of UV radiation.
While I’d been issued the appropriate equipment to prevent snow blindness, my fear of losing it kept me from bringing it along. Luckily, I recuperated from my cold-weather injuries and graduated from the class. In hindsight, I believe those injuries have actually helped me throughout my career. From personal experience, I know what to look for in potential cold-weather injury patients.
Before you head out into cold weather, either tactically or for recreation, take appropriate precautions. It doesn’t take a lot of exposure to the elements to put you out of commission. Trust me, I’ve been there and done that!
For more information about cold-weather injury prevention, check out the U.S. Army Public Health Center’s fact sheet at https://phc.amedd.army.mil/PHC%20Resource%20Library/ColdWeatherInjuries_FS_12-004-0915.pdf. Additional information can be found in the following: