Attrition: Flaming Madness

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June 12, 2010: A significant reduction in burn wounds has been achieved over the last four years, by simply issuing flame resistant uniforms. After 2003, as American troops in Iraq (and later Afghanistan) began to encounter more roadside bombs, there was an increase in burn injuries. While the bombs killed largely because of blast, many more burn wounds were inflicted by the explosion, and subsequent fires in the vehicles.

The army and marines already had flame resistant uniforms, but these were only issued to personnel believed likely to need them (fire fighters and the like). Issuing the existing flame resistant uniforms to everyone,  was quickly found to be impractical, as the uniforms were heavier, and retained more body heat than regular combat uniforms. This caused far more heat related injuries. Thus, over the last 3-4 years, these older uniforms were replaced with lighter and cooler flame resistant uniforms. The flame resistant clothing takes longer to catch fire, and, unlike regular uniform cloth, will not keep burning once the flame is removed.

This was not the only problem with flame resistant clothing and heat injuries. Four years ago, marines in Iraq were told they could no longer wear polyester undergarments. These high-tech T-shirts employed fibers that wick sweat away from the body, cooling the wearer, or keeping them warmer in cold weather. However, polyester melts if exposed to flame, which often happens when a roadside bomb goes off, and you are in the way. The marines were told they could still wear the official, less effective, high-tech underwear they were issued. It took about six months before someone reminded the brass that the official stuff, called polypro, was also made of polyester. Oops. So polypro was also banned for use outside the wire (outside bases). The marines were not amused. The initial ban was widely attributed to some craven generals who had been frightened by some weasel PAO (Public Affairs Officer) who pointed out how harmful it would be to a commander's career if the media got hold of a story about a marine getting killed because his polyester T-shirt melted. The marines knew that the t-shirt was protected by the uniform blouse and body armor. If the flame got through all that, you were probably dead already. The marines, who have to fight in the cold and heat, wanted the brass to get out of their underwear.

The army was apparently aware of all this, but had not banned polyester. Meanwhile, the air force has come up with a t-shirt that used a fire-resistant, high tech ("meta-aramid") fiber, that performed like the banned polyester undergarments.

As a result of all this, many marines risked a fine or demotion by wearing the polyester undergarments anyway. It's damn cold in Iraq in the Winter, especially at night, when many of the marines were outside the wire, hunting for bad guys. The brass finally backed off on the t-shirt issue, and got less stifling flame resistant uniforms issued.

 


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