The Army and Your Body

There is a special attention that we as humans need to give to our physical experiences, especially the painful ones. The most obvious would be to try to prevent causing your body harm again. So why is it that some human beings go out of their way to experience pain?

I knew soldiers that purposely volunteered for dangerous assignments, because they wanted the rush that the possibility of pain can give. There's a hyper-awareness, and also a kind of pleasure at these rushes of adrenaline, that drugs or artificial stimuli can't produce. There's also an incredible peace that you feel when the danger has passed. It's not like coming down from anything, because the relief is more like floating. For an incredibly brief moment you feel invincible. An unforeseen and yet striking comparison for me was when I gave birth to my children. Soldiers often feel that intense satisfaction of contribution when they take an assignment that spared someone else from danger. I felt the same when I contributed a new life, and committed to protecting it.

There is another kind of pain, however, that doesn't bring a rush before hand, and most certainly doesn't give an impression of contribution afterward. Sometimes pain is meaningless, and the pain I felt at Fort Chaffee Arkansas, is one that I still actively prepare to avoid when I go outside.

Growing up in the Utah Desert sun made me think that I had pretty good idea of how to handle the sun. Basic Training at Fort Jackson South Carolina gave me an even more exaggerated impression of being able to "beat the heat". You drink your water, you stop and rest in the shade, and you watch for the sings: cramps, sweating too much, crying, maybe a hallucination or two.

So, when I was aiding my fellow soldiers with setting up camp, I started to recognize the signs of heat exhaustion. I sat in the shade for a few minutes, and drank water. Lots and lots of water. I had eaten earlier, but for some reason I couldn't quite shake off the exhaustion. Usually after resting I was able to get back to it, and had a little more energy. However, in the blasting humidity of the Arkansas wilderness there was a basic element I was sorely lacking in: salt. 

Below is an aerial view of Fort Chaffee: 

Aerial view fort Chaffee.png

The uniformed squares are of course the barracks and other crumbling structures left over from WWII. The areas surrounding are patches of miserable swamp and stumpy treed grasslands. The grass, the trees, the bugs and the air all start to envelope you in the heat and humidity. There's nowhere to hide, and shade is an illusion of safety. 

I never dreamed there could be something worse than spending time in those dilapidated barracks with no A/C. Surely camping in a large airy tent would be much better, as well as an expando van with an A/C unit. This is provided that expando van isn't limited to the higher ranking officers and sergeants.

It was.

So, as I'm rolling out canvas in the middle of a huge, flattened out grass field, I start to pant more and more, and my head starts to throb. The throb turns into a sharp pain, and no matter what I tell the other soldiers we all have to pitch in and keep working. Pretty soon, I just plop down on the ground and start crying. I knew full well how humiliating it was, and yet I couldn't stop. It was more than emotional, it was an actual physical impulse that I'd never experienced. There were other soldiers that started "dropping out" around that time, but luckily for me I was half their size, and just about all out of salt. I had sweated and urinated it all out through the course of the day, and I had no idea that once the salt in your body is gone, some freaky stuff starts to happen to you.

For one, you stop sweating. Not only that, but your skin starts to refuse moisture. I was in 80% humidity, but when I felt my face, the skin was dry, like a soft sponge with tiny pores. When I would cry my skin drank the tears, and even though I was drinking water, my body couldn't hold it. So I would drink, and about ten minutes later I had to relieve myself. These annoyances I could have handled better had it not been for my head. The sharp pain that I had felt earlier had intensified into a full blown pressure, like my head was filled with needles that were trying to press their way out through my skull.

Through the incompetence of some of the higher leaders that sent our entire battalion out to this part of the fort, no one had bothered to pack any Gatorade, electrolyte water or salt pills. Any of these would have saved all of us a lot of pain, and also saved the lives of two soldiers who ended up in comas. When the number of soldiers with heat exhaustion began to pile up, we all started getting infusions of saline, and then were medevaced to the nearest hospital, Sparks Regional Medical Center.

It was my first helicopter ride, and if it hadn't gotten me to the hospital faster I would have rather died than get on it. I was so exhausted by then, not to mention humiliated at all of the help I needed just to stand to use the damn toilet, that all of it was a miserable blur. They gave me morphine when I got there, and my body was so incapable of absorbing anything, that it took forever for it to kick in. I sat on a stretcher in a hallway, still in horrible pain and there was nothing anyone could do.

There was a tender moment when I remember a man, not wearing scrubs, possibly a volunteer, who put a damp cloth on my head and spoke some kind, reassuring words to me. He was sort of shaggy, wearing a brimmed cap, jeans, and a T-shirt. He walked down the hall and out of sight, but out of any of the soldiers or doctors, his selfless attitude made me want to hold on longer. Before then, if someone gave me a button to sever my head from my body I would have pushed it without hesitation.

The entire experience was humbling, but altogether an absolute waste that could have been avoided. It most certainly wasn't worth two young men losing their lives, unless machines helped them. With all of our modern technology and knowledge, nobody bothered to train soldiers on the importance of salt as well as water. Just water, that's all you need soldier. Drink more water. We are able to infuse liquids with electrolytes, but can't manage to transport something so cheap and efficient at preserving life, because the massive equipment that made the fort commander feel like a stud took precedent.

It did teach me to pay attention to my leadership, and to take a better interest at taking care of myself, instead of trusting that everyone is competent at their job. Everyone has those experiences while shifting into adulthood. However, there should be a more serious standard set for soldiers and those going into law enforcement.