How I Dealt With Heat Exhaustion

If you’re going to be exercising during the daytime sun this summer, be mindful of staying hydrated.  It’s important.  Like, very important.  Learn from my experience.

I’ll share a story with you about that, if you want to hear it.

I was going through The Basic School (TBS) in 1990 in Quantico, Virginia.  It’s the Marine Corps’s six month school for newly commissioned officers.  You have to learn a lot of infantry tactics and skills, regardless of what your ultimate specialty will be.  One of those skills is land navigation (or land nav, as we called it).

On Marine bases all over the world, they have this color-coded flag system to (supposedly) show the danger of exercising in the heat.  A yellow flag meant to use caution.  A red flag meant to use a lot of caution.  And a black flag meant to watch out for your fucking ass.

I wonder why they ever bothered.  We did whatever we had to do, regardless of the flag.  None of the instructors paid much attention to it.  I always thought it was just ass-covering bullshit.

One day we had to complete this land nav course graded event.  They would give us a card with a whole mass of points to find all over this huge training area in the Quantico woods.  You were humping all day in the bush, with gear on, and with your map and compass.

You were “shooting azimuths” all over the fucking place.  “Shooting an azimuth” meant to use your compass and map to figure out where you needed to go.  The “objectives”, when you found them, were painted ammo cans nailed to posts deep in the bush.  So you would find one objective, orient your map, locate the next objective, hump a few clicks (kilometers), and find the others.

And so on.

There were a lot of points.  There were a lot of ammo cans hidden in the middle of nowhere.  We were only carrying two canteens and some other gear, and the instructors had told us to stay hydrated.  To help us with this, there were “water bulls” (as we called them) at certain roads and junctions here and there.  Water bulls were tanks of water that could be hauled by truck.

I liked land nav.  For once, you were alone and on your own, and using your wits and skills.  But I wasn’t drinking as much water as I should have.  By late morning, my cammies (camoflage utility uniform) were soaked in sweat.  I didn’t think anything about it.  I just wanted to keep going and finish.

And I ran out of water at one point.  I didn’t think it would be a problem.  But as time went on, I began to feel dizzy and sick.  Then this escalated into feelings of nausea.

See, that’s the weird thing about head exhaustion and heat stroke.  It’s not like you see in the movies or whatever.  You don’t go around smacking your parched lips and feeling thirsty.  You feel dizzy and sick.  You don’t really feel thirsty.

And so I didn’t recognize it for what it was.  At one point, though, I filled up one of my canteens in a small water source called Beaver Dam Run.  I heard it was polluted with all the ordnance and hazmat dumped in Quantico over the years.  But I didn’t give a shit at that point.

I couldn’t keep the water down; I just threw it up.  See, that’s what happens when you get heat exhaustion.  Your stomach can’t take a lot of water at once.

Walking became harder and harder.  I was moving slower and slower.  But I willed myself forward.  And I still finished before most of the other guys.

But I felt like shit.  I staggered back to my BOQ (bachelor officer’s quarters) room and went to sit down.  My buddies told me I looked like hell.  I sure felt like hell.  I sat down and tried to sip some water, but it was no good.  I still wasn’t sure what was wrong with me.  I thought I was sick, not dehydrated.

But then I tried to stand up, and all my leg muscles locked up.  It was weird as hell.  It took a lot of effort just to stand up.  By this time, I knew I should see a medic.  It was the only time in six months that I saw a medic at TBS.  One of my buddies went with me to make sure I got there.

Once there, the corpsman (navy corpsman, the medics for Marine units) told me I had heat exhaustion.  He knew right away.  He said he’d fix me up real quick.

He gave me an intravenous (IV) injection of water as I was lying down on this cot.  I think it was a couple of liters of cold water.

And let me tell you:  it was one of the weirdest, best feelings in my life.  To feel that cold water surge slowly, then with increasing rapidity, through my parched veins:  this was like something I’d never felt before.  I felt like a dried sponge suddenly immersed in water.  It was a fantastic feeling.  It was worth getting heat exhaustion, just to feel that.

And after that, I was fine.  It only took about 30 minutes or so for me to get hydrated again.

So there it is.  That’s my heat exhaustion story.  Don’t make my mistake.  It’s dangerous.

The lesson:  drink water.  Lots of it.  Your urine should be like clear water in color, or maybe a little pale yellow.  If you are feeling thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.


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