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RCT-7 battles desert heat in preparation for Afghanistan

31 Jul 2009 | Cpl. Skyler J. Tooker

Lance Cpl. Justin A. Stein fought the heat. And the heat won.

The 21-year-old administrative clerk with Headquarters Company, 7th Marine Regiment, was heading to the unforgiving desert training area here for a two-week exercise in support of an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.

Donning the prescribed combat load of a Kevlar helmet, coyote-brown modular tactical vest with rifle magazines and bulletproof plates inserted, two canteens filled with water, two backpacks with three weeks’ worth of hygiene gear and change of clothes, two sleeping bags and his M-16A4 service rifle, Stein climbed into and out of a 7-ton truck and onto the sands of the training area to help set up the headquarters area for his unit.

It didn’t take long for Stein to feel the effects of 112 degrees of dry desert heat July 27.

“I noticed my stomach started to ache, and then my legs started to cramp,” said Stein, from Sacramento, Calif. “The corpsmen told me I needed to take in more fluids, and make sure to eat so I could retain the fluids I was taking in.”

Within the first day of setting up for Regimental Combat Team 7’s pre-deployment training, nearly a dozen Marines like Stein had to take precautionary measures before succumbing to heat-related injuries.

A heat casualty is classified as an occasion when the human body overheats without the ability to rid itself of excess heat. Symptoms of heat casualties include heat cramps caused by loss of salt and water, heat exhaustion (headaches, nausea, loss of appetite), and ultimately a heat stroke, when the body’s core temperature is 105 degrees and over, which can result in brain damage or possibly death, said Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Philip D. Nacionales, the Regimental Aid Station leading petty officer, with 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

The heat can affect anyone who is not prepared for the conditions and weather coming their way. Marines should start hydrating at least two days prior to enter a hot environment, supplemented with proper nutrition and rest.

“One of the biggest things the Marines need to get used to is drinking lots of water. I know that energy drinks are all the rage right now, but water is what they should be drinking,” said Gunnery Sgt. Henry J. Rimkus Jr., the company gunnery sergeant for Headquarters Company, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

Rimkus Jr., with 15 years of experience in the infantry forces and three deployments to Iraq under his belt, offered other methods of acclimatizing to the brutal desert heat.

“Break yourself from the air conditioning,” said Rimkus Jr., a 33-year-old native from Great Falls, Mont. “When it is a hot day instead of turning the air conditioner on, just roll your windows down.”

While the Marines are conditioning their bodies and tailoring their training to mirror conditions they will face in Afghanistan, Marines should listen to their bodies.

“Make your training realistic at an individual level, and push yourself hard, but also know your limits to prepare for the heat,” Rimkus Jr. said.

If one Marine goes down as a heat casualty, it can affect the other Marines of 7th Marine Regiment, which is expected to be able to deploy within 48 hours of the receipt of an execute order, as either the ground combat element for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade or as a major subordinate element of the 1st Marine Division.   

“If you go down as a heat casualty, then I have to get four other Marines to carry you out of the fight, and I am down five Marines now,” Rimkus Jr. said.

Stein, who since then has heeded the advice of Rimkus Jr. and Nacionales, has since learned his lesson of operating in triple-digit temperatures.

“I’ve been hydrating a lot more and eating a lot more, and haven’t been feeling that bad since,” said Stein, who is eager to enter a combat zone for the first time as a United States Marine. “I can’t wait to go, to be honest,” he said. “I’ve been looking forward to this.”