During the fifth class of the 2020-21 training season for the Cold-Weather Operations Course at Fort McCoy, 11 students participated in cold-water immersion training March 19 at Big Sandy Lake on Fort McCoy’s South Post.
Though the ice had just melted off the lake, students were able to complete the training by wading in, submerging, and coming back up under the careful watch of course instructors on shore and in the water.
Water temperatures were between 30 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Practically every student had a slightly shocking reaction when entering the ice-cold water.
“Cold-water immersion, just like the course itself, tests the students both mentally and physically,” said CWOC instructor Hunter Heard, who coordinates training with fellow instructors Manny Ortiz, Brian Semann, and Joe Ernst. All are with contractor Veterans Range Solutions, which works with Fort McCoy’s Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization, and Security to complete the training.
Heard said the training is just a small part of the overall curriculum for CWOC. Normally for the cold-water immersion, a large hole is cut in the ice at the lake by CWOC staff, then a safe and planned regimen is followed to allow each participant to jump into the icy water. Emergency response personnel are always nearby in case they’re needed when the training takes place.
Heard said students get fully immersed while doing the training. Once they are in the water, they will stay in anywhere from one to three minutes but never longer than three minutes.
Ernst said cold-water immersion is critical to the ability to survive and operate in a cold-weather environment.
“The experience of someone being introduced to water in an extreme-cold environment is a crucial task for waterborne operations and confidence building,” Ernst said. “For a person to fall into water in that environment, the onset of panic generally introduces itself quickly. For our service members who will be operating in an extreme-cold environment, it is a task that, if not trained for, can produce unnecessary casualties.”
The human body’s reaction to falling through ice and into frigid water starts with the mind, Ernst said.
“The shock to the system generally results in an immediate response of a heightened rate of breathing,” Ernst said. “Visual limitations like tunnel vision, and confusion and muscle tension are common reactions. The ability of a person to regain control and composure after getting in this situation is possible.”
During CWOC, Ernst said the experience and guidance of the course’s cadre are critical to direct students to a slower rate of breathing and to advise students on regaining physical and mental control.
“Assessing the environment and situation can only serve as a life-saving technique,” Ernst said.
Ernst said the most important aspect of training is the techniques of extraction and recovery from the cold water.
“Quickly building a fire, should a heated structure or vehicle not be available, is one skill set we teach,” Ernst said. “We also teach the medical training that covers the effects of cold-water immersion and the timelines of recovery to prevent further injury.”
In addition to cold-water immersion, CWOC students are trained on a variety of cold-weather subjects, including snowshoe training and how to use ahkio sleds and other gear. Training also focuses on terrain and weather analysis, risk management, cold-weather clothing, developing winter fighting positions in the field, camouflage and concealment, and numerous other areas that are important to know in order to survive and operate in a cold-weather environment.
Fort McCoy’s motto is to be the “Total Force Training Center.” Located in the heart of the upper Midwest, Fort McCoy is the only U.S. Army installation in Wisconsin.
The installation has provided support and facilities for the field and classroom training of more than 100,000 military personnel from all services nearly every year since 1984.