80. Heat Stroke

80. Heat Stroke

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Heat Stroke

Never trust a private with a loaded weapon, or an officer with a map.
 ~Anonymous

Beyond being good for your health, being a runner will benefit you in ways you can’t possibly foresee. With running comes energy and stamina on reserve, just in case you need it. Being a runner has helped me in countless ways, but none more than in PLDC.

Some people are gifted with sharp minds, and the ability to focus in very stressful situations. I was left entirely out of that exclusive club. In Platoon Leadership Development Course (PLDC), the Army’s school for Noncommissioned Officers, I was forced to rely on running to save my military career.

Anyone who’s ever enrolled at PLDC in Fort Dix, New Jersey will tell you that the toughest part of the class is the land navigation course. In order for a soldier to be deemed fit to lead, he or she must master reading and navigating with a map. Sounds easy, right? Perhaps for you. But for me, well, I don’t always think things through, especially under pressure. As I crouched in the dirt on that hot July day down in the sprawling wilderness of Fort Dix, I knew I was in trouble.

Basic map reading is easy. Find the coordinates, line them up, bingo. There you are. Or at least, there’s your 1,000-meter grid square. In order to be more accurate you must take your time and measure your grid square with a ruler. You must also shoot an azimuth with your compass, and be able to walk in a straight line over a long distance. There are various techniques that help you with these procedures, but I was in too big a hurry to use them. And so, after already wasting two of my allotted three hours to find my five checkpoints, all I could see was swamp, there were no landmarks in sight, and I hadn’t seen any of the other 100 soldiers in an hour.

I was already sweating from the fatigues, boots, and heavy gear I was wearing, and from walking two miles in 90-degree heat into the middle of nowhere. Panic was just beneath the surface of my consciousness, and I fought to keep it down, but it just kept raising its head, and raising my blood pressure, making my heart slam in my chest. Anxiety was taking hold. I knew I had at least three miles to cover, and I had five checkpoints to find.

I tried to breathe evenly, pulled out my map. Okay. One good thing was that although my checkpoints were far apart, they were all fairly close to the highway that ran through Fort Dix. And that highway was long, and ran north to south on the border of my map. That meant that if I ran east long enough, I’d have to run into that highway eventually.

I began chugging along, fighting to find dry ground on which to run. Swamps were everywhere, and could sneak up on you if you weren’t looking where you were going. I took deep, measured breaths, tried to find my natural rhythm. I checked my compass, kept heading east, and sure enough, began hearing cars. The highway lay before me. I ran up to the roadside, stopped to catch my breath. I only had a half hour left.

I began running hard down the side of the highway. Luckily it ran due south, so I didn’t have to check my map. My back ached from the pull of my backpack straps, and my canteens banging against my sides. Onward I chugged, and after 10 minutes I could see my first checkpoint in the woods, 50 yards or so from the road. Four to go. The only problem was that I only had 25 minutes left. I knew many soldiers already had to be finished.

I began sprinting along my azimuth with wild abandon. When navigating over land with a compass, it is integral to know your pace count, and to count your paces. Otherwise you won’t know how far you’ve traveled. Running wildly down the side of the highway, I decided to abandon my pace count altogether. I was taking huge strides anyway. Which meant I’d have to be awfully careful about looking for my checkpoints.

I found my second checkpoint, and knew I’d have to turn into the woods. I had 15 minutes left. I hastily shot an azimuth that was nearly due west, noted on my map that I’d come across a road soon if I was headed in the right direction, and began an all-out sprint. I could hardly watch where I was going, because of the brambles I kept bursting through along my haphazard course. I put my Kevlar down and dug in, and suddenly I broke cover and hit the path I hoped to find. And before me was the third checkpoint. I wrote the number down. Two more to go.

I was sweating, panting, and my canteens were empty. Worse, I was beginning to feel a bit faint and nauseous. I felt the skin of my arm with my hand; it wasn’t quite so clammy as before. I was beginning to show the first signs of heat stroke. Still, I had to keep on. I had 10 minutes left.

I shot a hasty azimuth from the bend in the path I was on, due south. If I ran true I’d hit one, then the other checkpoint, and if I really hustled I’d make it back in time. I hadn’t really considered that: it wasn’t enough to simply find one’s checkpoints. You had to make it back too. I ran heavy, chugging my arms, my dummy M-16 swinging back and forth, clipping trees as I went. I stumbled upon my fourth checkpoint, hastily recorded it, and with not even enough time to check my watch I picked out a tall tree that was more or less due south and sprinted for it. I was heaving by this point, my clothes drenched, my skin eerily dry, though I’d been running for three hours straight in the hot sun, bundled up for 40-degree weather, as we all had to be. I crashed through a stand of pines, found my last checkpoint, and charged on, due south. I dropped a canteen, left it. I ran my heart out, even as my nausea increased and I panted like a heat-stricken dog. I finally saw a clearing ahead, broke out of the woods, and sprinted. I could see my fellow soldiers up ahead of me, could hear them yelling to me. I knew what that meant: there was still time. They wanted me to hurry.

I widened my stride and loped, putting one heavy boot before the other. I couldn’t even hear them over my own slamming heart and riotous breathing. When I crossed the finish line and joined them, I’d had only a minute or so to spare. But I wasn’t out of the woods yet, so to speak.

We were all organized into lines, and told to stand at attention while instructors looked over our maps and checkpoint lists to see if we found the right ones. But something funny was going on: I couldn’t catch my breath. Ten minutes I stood there panting and heaving, and my lungs still thought I was running, apparently. I tried to focus on my breathing to even it out, but to no avail. My chest heaved and heaved. I felt my forehead, and it was dry. So were my hands. I was close to vomiting from nausea, and I was getting the chills. Which is odd in extreme heat. There was only one thing to do. I began to strip.

There was a female instructor that I didn’t know leaning against the wall, and while everyone else was locked up tight at the position of attention, she saw me drop my rucksack and start taking off my shirt. She began to protest but I said two words that quieted her: “Heat stroke.” I then took the canteen from the man’s holster in front of me and drank it, took the canteen from the man behind me and dumped it on my head. They could have threatened me with discharge, and I wouldn’t have stopped. Anything’s better than getting heat stroke. In the end the instructors understood, simply watched with amused looks as I stole canteens from soldiers at attention and dumped them on myself. When I got to the front of the line my breathing had settled a bit, but I looked like hell. My shirt had been hastily buttoned back on, and I was soaked from head to toe, still panting, my face and arms striped with scratches from charging through the underbrush.

As the officer handed me back my test, which I passed, she said, “Damn, soldier. You look like hell.”

“Yes Ma’am,” I said. “Feel like it too.” But I thanked God I was a runner.

~Ron Kaiser, Jr.

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