Fire hazard puts Marines' cold-weather gear on ice in Iraq

Boxes of the new long johns that are suitable for outside the wire await distribution to the Marines of 9th Engineer Support Battalion in Iraq.


By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 22, 2006

CAMP TAQADDUM, Iraq — The grumbling was muffled but expletive-laced.

The Marines of 9th Engineer Support Battalion, out of Okinawa, were headed out on a night mission and had been told that day they wouldn’t be allowed to wear any of their Corps-issued cold weather gear to keep warm.

Iraq is normally associated with excruciating heat, but this time of year the temperature drops fast as soon as the sun goes down. On this particular night, it was forecasted to be 34 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill factor.

“No polypro. No fleece,” Chief Warrant Officer Bruce Broaddus reiterated to his Marines at the mission brief shortly before heading out Saturday. “You could see from the slide that it’s going to be cold tonight. You’ll have to mitigate that by layering — and a little Marine motivation.”

The problem is the cold weather gear is made of synthetic material, namely polypropylene, which the U.S. military has learned — the hard way — melts much like plastic around fire, such as during a roadside bomb explosion, and can cause burns.

Last week, Marine Brig. Gen. Robert Neller, deputy commander of Multi-National Forces — West, sent out guidance to his commands banning the gear from being worn outside the wire in Iraq. Only natural fibers, ideally cotton or wool, or flame-retardant material can be worn.

The Marines have been aware of the problems with synthetic materials since at least April, when they initially banned polyester and nylon — particularly clothes made by brands such as Under Armour and CoolMax. Those brands are not Marine Corps-issued, but are popular among troops and are sold at post exchanges.

It’s not clear why there was a delay in identifying that there would be a similar issue with the official Marine cold weather gear. But officials are working to get approved clothing to Marine units in Anbar.

The gear supplied to Marines in Iraq consists of a neck gator, top and bottom long johns — all of which are made of polypro — a polar fleece and a watch cap.

As a substitute, Marines are being issued flame-retardant long johns, and flash hoods to protect the neck and face are on order.

The long johns had been in the country and were easily acquired.

“There was more than enough,” said 1st Lt. Greg Duesterhaus, the 9th ESB supply officer. “It was just a matter of us asking.”

“It’s a constant battle,” Duesterhaus said about outfitting Marines with the best equipment to keep them safe. “It’s all a reaction to a changing war.”

Capt. Dev Spradlin, Engineer Support Company commander, said the decision to ban the gear wasn’t popular among his Marines, who do a substantial amount of work at night.

In the interim, Marines were left with layering T-shirts and sweats under their cammies or flight suits.

The sweats are “the only thing we have that’s issued that we can still wear because it’s made of cotton,” Lance Cpl. William Flores, with Support, said about the cold weather gear.

Mitigating risk of burns has been an evolving issue in Iraq, especially with the changing threat of roadside bombs. For example, Marines started wearing flame-retardant flight suits on missions. But even with the suits, it’s not safe to wear synthetic materials underneath because it’s possible that the heat from an explosion can melt the gear.

“We’ve learned through trial and error that [synthetic material] does more harm than good,” Spradlin said. “We’ll suffer a little bit now, but it’s for a better cause.”

The issue is especially personal for the Marines of 9th ESB. One of their own, Sgt. John Phillips, died in August after sustaining burns to most of his body during a roadside bomb explosion a few months prior. He was wearing a synthetic shirt.

“You wonder, ‘Would [the injury] have been as great had he been wearing a cotton T-shirt?’ ” said Lt. Col. Mark Menotti, commanding officer of 9th ESB.

The ban on cold weather gear was done out of caution by concerned leadership, Menotti said.

The Marines’ cold weather gear wasn’t necessarily designed to be worn in this type of combat situation, he said. It’s primarily for training in mountainous or other cold environments.

Banning that gear has the biggest impact on the gunners who are exposed to the elements in their turrets.

Company B Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Frizzell, 23, of Tell City, Ind., said he normally wears it all, plus an extra layer of a long-sleeve T-shirt to stay warm in the turret.

The 9th ESB leadership needed an alternative to keep Marines safe from the fire hazard, but warm enough to ward off illness.

“I asked my guys what’s on stock and how soon can we get it,” Menotti said.

Many of the gunners said the new long johns aren’t quite as warm as the polypro, but are better than nothing.

“Everybody complains about it, but we’ll get over it,” Lance Cpl. Cody Kidd, 19, a gunner from Snohomish, Wash., said. “It’s not that bad.”

Officials at the Marine Corps Systems Command — which acquires the gear and equipment used by Marines — said a permanent fix was in the making.

A program called “Flame Resistant Organizational Gear,” or FROG, was started in February and has resulted in flame resistant ensembles dubbed FROG I and FROG II. FROG I consists of a flame-retardant balaclava, flame-retardant long-sleeve T-shirt and flame-retardant gloves. FROG II adds a flame-retardant outer garment.

The main fibers being used include monoacrylic, Nomex and rayon, and possibly wool, a spokesman said Wednesday.

The spokesman said 60,000 FROG kits will be distributed between February and December 2007.

Stars and Stripes’ Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.

To keep warm in the brisk cold of early morning while preparing to go on a mission, Marines stay bundled in watch caps.