Hot As Hell…
I know I have blathered on about the heat in a lot of blog posts, but it has to be said that the abiding memory that I will have of Afghanistan will be the heat.
I expected it to be hot, but I had no idea just how hot it would get in the high summer. I remember days in Saudi in the summer there, 40 degree heat, but the time actually spent in the heat was very little. Most of the time there I was in air con’d rooms and cabins doing work. Only rarely were we actually outside in the heat, basically just to go from place to place. We ended up living in a proper, purpose built accommodation block with all the mod cons that you associate with brick buildings (running water, toilets that flush, air conditioning…) and travelling to and from work in air con’d vehicles, and then, as I was working on fibre-optic based equipment that required a dust free environment, we worked in negative pressure cabins which were of course…air conditioned. So, ultimately the time out in the heat was limited to very little. Maybe 2 hours was the longest we would spend out in the sun and the heat, but then we would be in the safety of the airbase in central Saudi Arabia. No body armour. No helmets. No blast-pants needed.
But it is very different out here. In the high summer, which is only just fading now, it got up to similar temperatures as in Saudi – maybe a degree or two higher. The difference here is that there is no escape from it. Or at least very little. The generators that provide the poser for the site couldn’t cope with a load of air conditioners running from it, so we are limited to just one or two dotted about. And they are single units that are not really designed to fight the heat of the sun on the tents – even with a sunshade, the tents get stiflingly hot every day. You can only really stay inside them until about 10am, and then it’s just too hot.
No the only place that is really cool is the chef’s Reefer unit. A refrigeration unit that keeps our limited supply of fresh food chilled for us. But the next coolest place is the Ops Room, which has recently been relocated from a tent to a purpose built ‘Hab’. This is a small hut built of Hesco (wire cages filled with gravel, dust and sand) and then with a steel roof and more hesco on top. It’s also got an aircon unit in which helps to keep the temperature at a steady level. The probem with this is it that it is fairly small and can only really accommodate enough people who NEED to be in there rather than people who want to be in there to cool down.
And then of course the major difference between here and Saudi is the kit. Just padding around camp we are lucky to be able to ‘dress down’ in relaxed rig with shorts, tee shirt and sandals/flip-flops. But of course when we go out on Patrol then the full kit has to be worn. Layers of protective gear go on to make us look like alien soldiers invading from outer space, with goggles, helmet, gloves all hiding away as much skin from the outside world as possible. In reality the only bit of skin on show is the bit of your fore-arms where you’ve folded up the sleeves on your Under Body armour shirt and your chin, cheeks and neck. Everything else is under some form of cover of some sort. And as you start to put on the kit it starts to get heavy, and increases what they call the thermal load. This is the effect that wearing a load of kit has on your ability to work in the heat. How hot you get and how fatigued you feel as a result.
And it’s odd. I can sit on the rower here for 45 minutes and bang out 10Km and feel tired but able to go on, but after 2km of patrolling in the same heat on a different day I can feel like I am ready to die from the exertion.
One day early on in my tour I did ‘go down’ with a heat injury. I had patrolled down to the frontline CP during the morning and felt fine, had some lunch, hydrated and even had a nap there whilst waiting to patrol back up. On the way back, not 1500m out of the CP gates I started to feel tired. I felt heavy and like my feet were lumps of lead. I felt light headed and slightly dizzy. I tried to concentrate on the footsteps of the man in front. At every occasion I took a knee for a rest and panted to get air in me. But it wasn’t helping. I stood up and started to feel really woozy and dizzy and had to take a knee again. I spoke up and said I was struggling and needed a break. The patrol got me across to a tree-line and I undid my body armour and helmet. This difference this made was amazing – just allowing a bit more air to me. I then tried to stand up, and fell again. This was not good. Thankfully we were near a road and I was half walked, half carried down the track to the main road where two Huskeys had been sent to pick me up.
I was taken the further 2km back to the main CP and straight into the med tent. There I was stripped by the medic and his assistant and sprayed with cold water to cool me down. My heart rate was all over the place, and my blood pressure was terribly low – something that is unusual for me as I am on hypertension tablets – and I was asked to describe how I felt. It was really like I was boiling up from inside. Like my internal thermostat had broken and was ramping up off scale. It felt like I was cooking from inside – a horrible feeling. I still felt dizzy and couldn’t stand up.
I was force fed cold water and sprayed with more cool water. Ice packs under my arms, and in my groin soon got my temperature down and I started to feel normal again. Thankfully, I had recognised the symptoms of the heat injury early and had spoken up about it. AND the Huskeys had been close enough to come and get me. Without them I would have had a struggle to get ‘home’.
I felt better and after a couple of days I was back out there again. One of the locals actually said going down in the heat would make me stronger to cope with the heat. What it certainly did was give me a scare and made me realise the signs and symptoms of a heat injury.
But I haven’t been the only one to ‘go down’. We have lost several people to heat injuries on this tour. Certainly more than to IEDs and enemy action. A couple have been in a seriously bad way and had to be med-evac’d out from on the ground by a MERT. One was particularly bad and was in such a state he was mumbling incoherently. He was later med-evc’d home categorized as ‘Very Seriously Ill’. All this is not good.
I have felt tired and fatigued on patrols since then, but thankfully I have not ‘gone down’ again since that day. But it’s a constant danger. If you’ve had a heat injury in the past then you are apparently more likely to get another in the future. And it’s a really scary thing, simply because you can’t do anything about it. You either get it or you don’t. You can be as fit as a butchers dog and still go down. It’s almost like a lottery.
I have never really looked forward to winter. I like the warm weather. But I am OH-SO looking forward to going back to the UK and the Autumnal weather there in October. I’ll miss the knocking about in shorts and flip flops, but I won’t miss heat of 45 degrees in the future at all…