When Going Gets Hot in Iraq, Hot Keep Going

In Iraq, members of the U.S. military are enduring yet another summer of terrible heat. How do they handle it? A little suffering, a little machismo, an occasional IV tube ... but no "cool pills."

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This is the fifth summer that U.S. troops in Iraq have spent fighting in the Mesopotamian Desert. The relentless heat is the unspoken enemy. Soldiers regularly patrol in temperatures of 120 degrees and higher. Over the years, the armed forces have learned a few things about surviving an Iraqi summer.

NPR's John Burnett reports from Baghdad.

JOHN BURNETT: The heat is something supernatural, baking with an intensity that's hard to describe. It does things to an army that no one foresaw.

Sergeant Paul Andrews(ph), a treatment specialist for Alpha Company of the Sledgehammer Brigade, stands inside the hospital tent in shorts and a t-shirt, fighting the torpor.

Sergeant PAUL ANDREWS (U.S. Army): It gets so hot the mercury actually cracks the whole thermometer.

BURNETT: Some GIs actually asked for an IV before they go out on midday patrol, in the belief that it will pre-hydrate them says Andrews. Brigade sergeants discourage the practice. They say drinking water is better. But the medics sometimes accommodate the request.

Sgt. ANDREWS: It's a mental thing with them. If they get an IV, then they're good even though they don't need it. If they get an IV, it's like a cure-all. It's like they're happy. Yeah, IV. Oh, yeah. I'm good now. Yeah, they could have their, you know, arm burn(ph) off and this - hey, IV, I'm good.

BURNETT: The observation post at Combat Outpost Assassins rises 30 feet above the desert floor. In a window stands 24-year-old Staff Sergeant Ryan Beets(ph) from Getsonia(ph), Pennsylvania, watching a highway for suspicious vehicles.

It feels like a furnace inside the concrete tower. And his body armor raises his temperature another 10 to 15 degrees. But it's been worst, says Deeds - his flushed face smiling good-naturedly. He remembers when he was a gunner on a Bradley fighting vehicle.

Staff Sergeant RYAN BEETS (U.S. Army): It gets up to, I'd say, about 140, 150 degrees inside that turret and just - there's no A/C in there but everything gets so hot. Every piece of metal you touch, you burn your hand. That is pretty miserable.

BURNETT: How do you deal with that?

Staff Sgt. BEETS: I guesss, I just drink water, you know, keep driving on. It's all you can do.

BURNETT: Soldiers often drink seven to eight liters of water a day, and urinate very little because they sweat so much. But out, in 120 degrees, the body becomes a walking evaporative cooler. It gets more efficient after two weeks in the heat because people tend to acclimate. Still, watching the street all day from the observation post, Sergeant Deeds grows envious of local custom.

Staff Sgt. BEETS: Yeah. I'm sure if all I had to wear is a man dress and flipflops, I'd be a lot cooler.

BURNETT: For war planners, heat is not just a casualty threat. It's a morale issue. When soldiers come off along patrol, they must cool down. To that end, in Iraq today, almost all field tents are now air-conditioned and A/C has become standard in most Humvees.

(Soundbite of patrolling Humvee)

BURNETT: Sitting in a relative comfort of his Humvee, Lieutenant Clifton Hubbard (ph) used this description when he wrote home recently.

Lieutenant CLIFTON HUBBARD (U.S. Army): It can almost be described as a hair dryer just being blown on you constantly.

BURNETT: But everything is relative, according to the Humvee gunner, Specialist James Brennan (ph).

Specialist JAMES BRENNAN (U.S. Army): So when it gets up to 120, 125, you know that's really hot. Get down like 105 degree, that's cool to you.

BURNETT: And in the warrior culture of the military, pride comes into play, says Lieutenant Dan Bell, a tank commander from San Antonio.

Lieutenant DAN BELL (Tank Commander, U.S. Army): It's kind of almost machismo. If you're the one to fall out from a heat injury or you're the one complaining that it's hot, everyone else is going to make fun of you. And you don't want to be that guy.

BURNETT: Iraqis already agog at the technology Americans brought over to fight the war believe the troops have a secret weapon against the heat. How else could they survive in their bulky armor and hot uniforms under the blazing Arabian sun? They've created an occupation urban legend.

An Army surgeon was treating Iraqis during a recent medical op when one of them asked, in complete seriousness, doctor, may I please have one of your cool pills?

John Burnett, NPR News, Baghdad.

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