Top Enlisted: Military Leaders Need to Help Troops Guard Against Heat Injuries

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Soldiers at Fort Benning training to become infantrymen make use of immersion troughs filled with ice and water, allowing troops a quick way to cool their bodies during rigorous training in the Georgia heat in July 2018. The troughs are just one of the measures used to help avoid heat injuries. (U.S. Army photo by Patrick A. Albright, Fort Benning Maneuver Center of Excellence)
Soldiers at Fort Benning training to become infantrymen make use of immersion troughs filled with ice and water, allowing troops a quick way to cool their bodies during rigorous training in the Georgia heat in July 2018. The troughs are just one of the measures used to help avoid heat injuries. (U.S. Army photo by Patrick A. Albright, Fort Benning Maneuver Center of Excellence)

Amid reports that climate change is contributing to a spike in heat injuries and even heat-related deaths among troops in training, top enlisted leaders say the branches need to pay better attention to warning signs.

Extreme heat has caused a rise in heat exhaustion and heat stroke incidents among active-duty service members over the last decade, according to a recent investigative report from NBC News. The outlet, citing military data, said there has been a 60% increase in heat injuries between 2008 and 2018, with at least 17 of those cases leading to troops' deaths.

Looking for "signs of overheating or frostbite and all of these other things are inherent tasks that our leaders should be getting after," said Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Wayne Troxell. Troxell, the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the senior noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Armed Forces, spoke with reporters alongside other top enlisted leaders at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

He said troops should be trained to the highest standard routinely, not just for a physical training test event.

Related: Heat Illness Incidents Rising Sharply During Military Training: Pentagon

That said, leaders must monitor each service member's social cues in case he or she is overburdened emotionally or physically, according to Troxell.

"We have to give them tools to be able to recover and rehabilitate [so] they can continue to do it day after day. And then we have to [look] at troops [and ask] if they're being challenged … [but] for engaged leaders to be able to pick up on these nonverbal cues and get the person the help they need," he said.

"We already know how to do this where we have precautions for heat and so you can't perform PT testing, or PT period," added Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright. He said the same applies to training restrictions during extreme cold weather conditions.

Wright said the Air Force has given squadron leaders more decision-making authority to determine when service members should cut back on physical exertion and to watch out for those airmen who may be pushing too hard and endangering their health.

The Navy recently increased physical fitness requirements at boot camp, prompting sailors to try harder to maintain fitness, said Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith.

That effort has ultimately made sailors stronger and more aware of their limits, he said.

Whether it's training for a test or for combat, Troxell said each service should be aware of pushing things too far.

"We fully understand that we may have to fight in extreme cold and extreme heat conditions, so we have to train for that," he said. "We have to have a balance as leaders, in terms of discipline and compassion, on how we get after business. And so we have to continue to invest in leaders so that they're more empowered and understand more, the men and women, that they have the responsibility to take care of. When one of those is out of balance, that's when the heat injuries or the cold injuries come in."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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