Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The mercury level in Washington crested at 99 degrees yesterday — about 21 degrees below the high in Baghdad.

While Washington’s summer swelter prompted complaints from tourists in shorts, tank tops and flip-flops, U.S. troops in Iraq face the desert heat in helmets, Kevlar vests and combat boots.

“If you’re out on patrols and Joe takes his helmet off because he’s got an itch, it’s a team or squad-level infraction,” said Army Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Pentagon spokesman.

The security posture at most U.S. military installations in Iraq has been reduced to the point where soldiers can wear soft caps rather than helmets and bulletproof vests when on base, Col. Venable said.

But off base is a different story. Throughout the country, standard security posture is for troops to be wearing bulletproof vests and helmets and carrying M-16 rifle — at all times. Rules can vary from unit to unit, Col. Venable said, depending on the area where a unit is conducting patrols, and a service member who does not conform may face minor punishment from his immediate superiors.

Not counting desert-camouflage uniforms, heavy-duty combat boots or other equipment, the average infantryman carries more than 20 pounds of gear with him through the blazing heat at all times.

A soldier’s helmet weighs three to four pounds, and his M-16 is about eight pounds unloaded. The weight of bulletproof vests vary — the older the model the heavier — but they typically average 12 pounds.

Army Maj. Flora Lee, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said in a telephone interview yesterday that her unit was issued “camel backs” — slim backpacks that can be filled with drinking water — when they shipped off for Iraq.

“We have a plentiful supply of bottled water, because the water here isn’t potable,” she said. “People are just reminded to drink all the time to remain hydrated.”

Preparing troops for the Iraqi summers has been a concern at the Pentagon. Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway said that the heat is “brutal” and that commanders overseeing troops in Iraq have “been concerned about it from the outset.”

“It’s a brutal region, especially this time of year,” Gen. Conway told reporters at a news briefing deep within the air-conditioned corridors of the Pentagon yesterday.

The general said efforts have been made to bring the soothing comfort of such air conditioning to troops posted in Iraq.

“There are air conditioners … put into the barracks, put into the offices, that type of thing, so although you’re out on patrol and it’s hot and it’s miserable, when you get back in, there is relief,” Gen. Conway said. “There are some very superb mess halls that are also air-conditioned that allow the troops a chance to regenerate before they go back out again.”

In Baghdad, Maj. Lee said, respite from broiling daytime temperatures can occasionally be found at night.

“The temperature does drop in the evenings a little bit,” the Army spokeswoman said. “Sometimes, it will drop like 30 to 40 degrees.”

Iraqi evenings, however, are cool only in comparison to the 120-degree daytime highs. The overnight low in Baghdad yesterday was 90.

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