Servicemembers embrace the freeze at cold weather operations course
Falling through ice into cold water can cause rapid breathing, tunnel vision, confusion and muscle tension, but soldiers at Fort McCoy, Wis., recently learned to overcome the shock.
The training was part of a cold-weather course established in early 2017, as the military shifted its focus from Middle East wars to what the base’s training chief Ed Carns called “full-spectrum, decisive-action operations” requiring the ability to go anywhere in the world, including far northern latitudes.
One-by-one last month, 39 students dropped through a hole in the thick ice over the post’s Big Sandy Lake, an Army statement said this week.
Their reactions were immediate — gasping, cringing, clenching teeth.
“The onset of panic generally introduces itself quickly,” said Joe Ernst, an instructor at the base’s Cold-Weather Operations Course, according to the Army statement. “If not trained for, [a fall into cold water] can produce unnecessary casualties.”
The icy dunk is “a crucial task for waterborne operations” and helps build confidence, Ernst said. It’s a key part of the course, which began its third training season in early December, just days after an 8-inch snowfall.
Course instructors helped students slow their breathing and regain physical and mental control. Emergency responders waited nearby as a precaution.
“Once they are in the water, they will stay in anywhere from one to three minutes but never longer than three minutes,” said Bill Hamilton, the lead course instructor, who works for the contracting firm Veterans Range Solutions, the Army statement said.
The students were also taught extraction and recovery techniques, such as how to quickly build a fire to warm up after the dip.
The training is meant to prepare troops for service in Arctic and sub-Arctic zones and modeled on a course taught by the Army Northern Warfare Training Center in Black Rapids, Alaska.
Course staff includes Army and Marine veterans who have taught at the Alaska center and the Marine Corps’ Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif.
More than 230 students — soldiers, sailors and Marines — completed the 12-day training last year, which included seven days of overnight field operations. More than 150 additional servicemembers received some level of cold-weather training.
This year, the course is two days longer, with a new march route and bivouac sites, and trainers hope to graduate 300 students, officials said ahead of the training season’s first course.
The only Army installation in Wisconsin, located about 40 miles northeast of LaCrosse, Fort McCoy hosted cold-weather training during World War II and was a main winter training site into the 1990s, base officials have said.
Work to set up the new cold-weather training course began amid a renewed focus on deterring Russian aggression after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
In recent years, U.S. troops have been deploying to locations in Poland, Germany and the Baltics to bolster NATO’s eastern flank. In Norway, hundreds of Marines are training year-round.
At Fort McCoy, students also learn skiing, snowshoeing and how to use the ahkio sled — a type of toboggan soldiers drag through the snow carrying heavier winter gear such as heaters, stoves and thermal tents. They also get lessons on terrain and weather analysis, clothing, fighting positions, and camouflage and concealment.
“I’ve definitely learned how to operate in the cold,” said Taryn Chovan, an Army Reserve Officer Training Corps cadet with the 16th Psychological Operations Battalion of Fort Sheridan, Ill., the Army statement said. “I didn’t think it was possible to survive overnight in the winter.”