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Monday, August 18

Troops in Iraq winning battle against natural enemy - heat

By Donna Leinwand, Jim Michaels | USA TODAY

When it's ``only'' 120 degrees, American troops posted here literally breathe sighs of relief.

``Right now it's 118 and it feels comfortable,'' says Lt. Brian Crowley, 33, of Los Angeles. Compared to many days this summer, when troops say temperatures have routinely neared 130 degrees, a 10- or 12-degree drop is welcome.

History has shown that how an army battles nature can be as important as how it battles the enemy. The bitterly cold Russian winter of 1812 helped spell the end of Napoleon's empire when his troops marched on Moscow.

Now, in Iraq, the U.S. Army says it is winning a dangerous struggle with this desert nation's brutal summer heat. Training that drills soldiers on the importance of drinking lots of fluids and eating properly has so far kept casualties low. Of the nearly 150,000 troops in Iraq, two have died in the past month from heat-related illnesses. At least five others have become seriously ill.

``Given the numbers of troops and the 120-degrees plus temperatures, it's a relatively low number,'' says Maj. Bill Dixon, a physician and chief of medicine at the 28th Combat Support Hospital, a city of tents 30 miles southwest of Baghdad in a scrub desert. ``I think people are aware and they are serious about prevention.''

Dixon says most cases of dehydration and minor heat exhaustion have been treated in the field by medics. In some of the worst cases, soldiers have had seizures and core body temperatures have spiked as high as 108 degrees. Doctors must cool them using ice, fans and water to bring down their temperatures to a more manageable 102 degrees.

Dixon says he also sees cases of electrolyte depletion, when soldiers drink lots of water but fail to eat enough to replace other key body chemicals such as sodium. That too can be serious, even fatal.

``Water can be too much of a good thing,'' he says. He advises the troops to also guzzle sports drinks and to keep eating their packaged meals, crackers, chips and other foods high in sodium.

Troops in the field, who often carry about 30 pounds of gear and must wear flak jackets and helmets, also cope with the extreme heat in other ways:

Like many others, Capt. Mike Riedmuller, a 29-year-old from Denver, wears gloves to keep from burning his hands on his rifle.

To keep drinking water cool while on patrol, soldiers soak socks in water, place their water bottles in the socks, and then hang them off their vehicles. The breeze helps to keep the water from getting too hot to drink.They can't ever quite beat the heat, though, soldiers say.

``If I talk about the weather, you would have to `bleep' out a lot of stuff,'' says Cpl. Jorge Acevedo, 30, of Gainesville, Fla. Acevedo, a member of the Florida National Guard, says Florida seems cool by comparison.

``Hell, the wind's even hot here. Feels like someone's blowing a blow dryer on you,'' Acevedo says.