By David VergunFebruary 24, 2017
BLACK RAPIDS TRAINING SITE, Alaska (Army News Service) -- In minus 30 and minus 40 degrees, temperatures common in Alaska, frostbite can develop in just minutes.
"I've never treated a cold-weather injury in my life until I came here," said Sgt. Eric Martin, a medic at the Northern Warfare Training Center.
According to Martin, simple carelessness in these temperatures can lead to injury. For example, an NWTC student who removes his outer mitten to handle tent stakes in the snow might neglect to brush the snow off the inner glove before sticking it back into the mitten. The snow could then melt and later freeze into ice.
"The next thing you know, chilblains or superficial frostbite set in," Martin said.
Martin, who served as a medic in a cold, remote, mountainous area of Afghanistan in 2012 and 2013, said the weather here in Alaska is so much colder than areas where Soldiers are accustomed to operating.
He keeps a constant vigil, watching for signs of frostbite and hypothermia among the students, following them around the NWTC in a heated, tracked small unit support vehicle that can hold nine people in the back cab and four, including the driver, in the front.
Martin also brings along snowshoes and skis in case he must attend to a casualty in the forest where the vehicle cannot operate.
PERILS OF FROSTBITE
The treatment for superficial frostbite, he said, is to get the Soldier inside the SUS-V and apply warm, dry towels to the area.
Sgt. Jessica Bartolotta, a student, said a Soldier in her squad developed superficial frostbite on his nose. The skin was white in color and stiff-looking. "I've never seen anything like it before," she said. "But now I definitely know how it looks and what to look for."
Superficial frostbite doesn't result in permanent damage to the skin, according to Martin, which means a Soldier can continue with training. Such Soldiers are interviewed by the medic before they return to training, however, to determine the cause of the injury. The medic then offers instruction on how to avoid repeating the same mistake.
Staff Sgt. Rexton Christensen, an instructor, also served in the cold and mountainous areas of Afghanistan. The cold here, he said, is more severe than anything he's ever experienced there or in the lower 48 states. The risk of frostbite makes performing a simple task like removing a glove to zip a zipper more complicated and time-consuming.
His main takeaway from his experience operating in extreme cold weather is that "little mistakes can potentially be life-threatening."
Staff Sgt. Manuel Beza, an instructor and also the senior medic, said in his hometown of Dallas, Texas, when it's 40 degrees people often complain they're freezing. For Soldiers like him from the deep south, Beza said, the weather here can be a shock to the system.
All of the instructors, he said, are big on safety. "Students are taught to seek help before it gets bad, and all of the instructors constantly monitor the students, checking their hands, nose and ears for frostbite and ask if their feet are OK."
During snow movements on trails, an instructor will usually bring up the rear of the squad, watching for anyone who drops out or gets injured.
FALLS NOT UNCOMMON
Injuries on the trail tend to be muscular-skeletal, Beza said. Many of the students have never worn snowshoes or skis before.
"It's new to them," he said. "They're walking around with all that gear on and lose their balance or footing and get twisted ankles or twisted knees or pulled backs."
On the first day of downhill skiing and the first day of cross-country skiing, nearly all of the students fell at some point. The trails have many twists and turns and steep ascents and descents, not to mention bushes and branches that can easily catch ski blades.
In the vast majority of falls, the Soldiers were unhurt. They laughed, rose up, dusted off the snow and continued on. But not all were so lucky.
Staff Sgt. Nathan Clabaugh was on the final leg of the final day of cross-country skiing when his luck ran out. It happened at a particularly nasty spot on the trail where a steep descent met a hard turn. A large tree was located directly at the bottom of the slope, where thick brush on either side of the trail forced skiers to veer sharply to avoid the tree and continue up a steep ascent.
Many of the students successfully negotiated the turn, but others fell. A few decided not to ski down at all and instead gingerly sidestepped their way down, a method skiers are taught for ascending or descending hills too steep for their skill level.
Clabaugh chose to make the attempt. On his way down, his ski caught a branch and he failed to make the turn, and he smacked squarely into the tree, offering a few choice words in the process.
Martin, who was a short distance away in the SUS-V, helped Clabaugh to the vehicle and then drove him down the mountain to the NWTC headquarters building, where Clabaugh was treated.
After enduring the cold and hardships for so many days, Clabaugh worried his leg injury might result in his getting dropped from training and having to return to his unit in ignominy.
But Martin saved the day with a dose of Motrin, some Bengay and a muscle relaxer. Clabaugh thought the medic would tell him to rest his leg, but Martin advised him to keep moving or it would stiffen.
The next day, Clabaugh was still sore but moving, participating in the biathlon. He ended up graduating with the rest of the class.
RESCUING WAYWARD TRAVELERS
Most of the serious injuries here happen not to the students but the civilians who venture into the foreboding area adjacent to the NWTC, which includes the Delta River valley, Delta Glacier and the Alaska Range, home of Denali, the highest mountain in North America.
Last year, Staff Sgt. Matthew Doane was training a Special Forces team when he got a call from state troopers that a car had rolled into Delta River. State troopers here are aware that NWTC instructors are proficient in rescue and have the necessary equipment and will occasionally call upon their expertise.
Doane quickly packed his harness, helmet, ropes and other climbing gear. Upon arriving at the scene of the accident, he spotted the car overturned in the river. He tied his rope to an emergency medical vehicle on the scene, donned a life preserver and swam out to the vehicle.
Tragically, the rescue mission turned into a recovery mission, he said. Both teens in the vehicle were dead. The medics said they died on impact, not from drowning.
Doane was also involved in an avalanche rescue on Delta Glacier. Just about any instructor who has spent any time with the school, he said, will have stories to tell of rescues.
Steve Decker, training specialist at NWTC, has seen his share of accidents over his three years here, first as a Soldier-instructor, then as an Army civilian after retiring in 2005.
One incident in particular still haunts him. He was called out to perform a rescue on Delta Glacier. A 9-year-old boy on a snowmobile had plunged through a crevasse in the glacier. This rescue mission also ended up a recovery mission.
Fortunately, none of the instructors had similar stories to share about students who didn't make it, though a number of them could recount tales of Soldiers who came here from Fairbanks and other cold areas believing the NWTC would be a cake walk -- and soon found it was anything but.
"People can break down here mentally or physically," Doane said. "It can happen to anyone."
(Follow David Vergun on Twitter: @vergunARNEWS)