FORT BENNING, Ga. -- With July's heat at Fort Benning running at scorcher levels, health officials here say taking steps to avoid heat injuries is all the more urgent now at this post known for its exceptionally intense, all-weather combat training.
At Fort Benning's Maneuver Center of Excellence, which trains the U.S. Army's Infantry and Armor forces, as well as paratroopers, Rangers, and others, including foreign troops, the mercury this month has climbed to the high 90s.
But, more importantly from a health standpoint, the humidity's been even worse, said Maj. Scott H. Robinson, Chief, Preventive Medicine, at Fort Benning's Martin Army Community Hospital.
"This July has been an unusually hot and humid July," he said. "The humidity is 100 percent every morning. At Benning, humidity is our greatest indicator of severe heat injury. It's our strongest risk factor for hospitalization for heat injuries."
That can spell a surge in heat injuries, including such worst-case threats as heat stroke, heat which can cause death. But it also includes heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat rash.
At Fort Benning, this poses risk especially for Soldiers, whose tough training typically entails dashing across open country in heavy combat gear, running, jumping, crawling, heavy lifting and other actions, in the heat and humidity of the American South.
Trainees and other Soldiers who train at Fort Benning "stand at the intersection of heat, humidity and extreme physical activity," said Robinson.
"It's therefore critically important to be aware of your body and not put your life on the finish line," he said. "The key things to remember are: be aware of the climate conditions, hydration starts the day before, and be aware of yourself and your buddy."
"We're on the go, moving, getting up, getting down, carrying things, a lot of running involved," said Master Sgt. Dennis Morton, the Operations noncommissioned officer-in-charge at the 198th Infantry Brigade, which trains troops to become Infantry Soldiers.
"Everything we do is very physically demanding," said Morton. "All of the equipment we wear automatically makes you hotter. Our whole job is kind of based around that. We're not office people, sitting behind a desk with a computer. Everything we do is outside. High physical demand."
So, whether you're a service member or civilian, Fort Benning officials say the key is to follow the trusted safety tips for avoiding heat injuries.
To the extent that you can, avoid spending time outside during the hottest part of the day, which in many places is usually from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. but at Fort Benning is noon to 4 p.m., said Robinson.
Among keys to preventing heat illness are these three: water, rest, shade.
• Water. You need lots of water throughout the day, but intake should be steady through the day, not forced down in a single binge. Forcing it can itself lead to severe illness. Instead, don't ignore your thirst, said Robinson, "Drink to thirst. If you're thirsty, drink. All our best studies are that in military populations we should drink to thirst."
• Eat salty snacks.
• Avoid caffeine, alcohol, or sugared sodas. Don't take salt tablets unless a doctor tells you to.
• Rest: Rest breaks are important. They give your body a chance to recover.
• Shade: Resting in the shade or in an air-conditioned place helps cool your body.
But besides water, rest and shade, there are a few other precautions of high importance.
• Definitely wear sunscreen. If you get sunburned it affects your body's ability to cool itself.
• Wear a hat, and lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.
• Know the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke:
Signs of heat exhaustion include: headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, thirst, fatigue and heavy sweating.
Signs of heatstroke include: confusion, irrational behavior, fast breathing, very high body temperature, hot, flushed skin, convulsions, being in a state where you're unresponsive and have stopped sweating, and lack of proper coordination, including stumbling and falling.
If you suspect heat stroke, call 911.
And here's an especially important thing to remember where children or pets are involved: Never leave infants or young children unattended in a vehicle, even if the windows are partly open or the air conditioning is on. Likewise, don't leave your dog or other pet in the car. By the time you're back at the car the pet may have died from the heat.
And don't overwrap babies. Shade them instead.
• Give pets plenty of water or bring them inside.
• Don't drink ice-cold drinks. They can cause stomach cramps.
Fort Benning meanwhile has taken several additional steps this summer to help thwart heat injuries.
It's positioned immersion tanks filled with icy water at each of six locations on Main Post where units or individuals are known to do physical exercise. Soldiers exercising or individual passersby who feel they're overheating can dip their forearms in the ice water, a proven way of quickly cooling an overheated body. The forearms should be immersed to the elbows for three to five minutes, Robinson said.
"It's a pretty fast-acting way to cool somebody down," said Maj. Lars Harstad, the 199th Infantry Brigade's deputy brigade commander.
The tanks are left in place and each morning, a detail of Soldiers from the brigade fills them with ice and water, Harstad said.
"The ice troughs are available for anyone to use. So if it's a single Soldier that's running and decides to cool down, it would be available."