CAMP TAQADDUM, IRAQ -- Under direction of Marine Corps commanders in Iraq, wearing synthetic athletic clothing containing polyester and nylon has been prohibited while conducting operations off of forward operating bases and camps.
The ban on popular clothing from companies like Under Armour, CoolMax and Nike comes in the wake of concerns that a substantial burn risk is associated with wearing clothing made with these synthetic materials.
When exposed to extreme heat and flames, clothing containing some synthetic materials like polyester will melt and can fuse to the skin. This essentially creates a second skin and can lead to horrific, disfiguring burns, said Navy Capt. Lynn E. Welling, the 1st Marine Logistics Group head surgeon.
Whether on foot patrol or conducting a supply convoy while riding in an armored truck, everyone is at risk to such injuries while outside the wire.
“Burns can kill you and they’re horribly disfiguring. If you’re throwing (a melted synthetic material) on top of a burn, basically you have a bad burn with a bunch of plastic melting into your skin and that’s not how you want to go home to your family,” said Welling.
According to Tension Technology International, a company that specializes in synthetic fibers, most man made fabrics, such as nylon, acrylic or polyester will melt when ignited and produce a hot, sticky, melted substance causing extremely severe burns.
For these reasons, Marines have been limited to wearing clothing made with these materials only while on the relatively safe forward operating bases and camps where encounters with fires and explosions are relatively low.
The popularity of these products has risen in the past few years and has started being sold at military clothing stores. Some companies have come out with product lines specifically catering to military needs. This makes polyester clothing readily available to servicemembers, said Welling.
The high performance fabrics work by pulling perspiration away from the body to the outside of the garment instead of absorbing moisture like most cotton clothing.
The Under Armour company, a favorite among many servicemembers here, advertises that the fabric used to make their garments will wick perspiration from the skin to the outer layer of the clothing allowing the person wearing it to remain cool and dry in any condition or climate.
While these qualities have been a main reason for Marines to stock up on these items, the melting side effect can be a fatal drawback, said Welling.
This point was driven home recently at a military medical facility located at Camp Ramadi, a U.S. military base on the outskirts of the city of Ramadi, arguably one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq.
“We had a Marine with significant burn injuries covering around 70 percent of his body,” said Cmdr. Joseph F. Rappold, the officer in charge of the medical unit at the base.
The Marine was injured when the armored vehicle he was riding in struck an improvised explosive device, or IED, causing his polyester shirt to melt to his skin. Even though he was wearing his protective vest Navy doctors still had to cut the melted undergarment from his torso.
His injuries would not have been as severe had he not been wearing a polyester shirt, said Rappold.
Burns have become a common injury in Iraq as the enemy continues to employ IED’s and roadside bombs.
Currently, such hidden explosives are the number one killer of servicemembers in Iraq, said Welling.
For years servicemembers with jobs that put then at a high risk of flame exposure, such as pilots and explosive ordnance disposal personnel, were kept from wearing polyester materials because of the extra burn threat. Now, with so many encounters with IED explosions, the Marines are extending this ban to everyone going “outside the wire.”
As the summer months in Iraq get closer, temperatures during some days are expected hover around 130 degrees Fahrenheit. With blistering temperatures like these, many will be wearing the moisture wicking, quick drying clothing in an attempt to “beat the heat” and stay cool.
“I understand it gets to be 150 degrees (Fahrenheit) in a turret during the summer time. My goal is not to make it more uncomfortable or harder on the servicemembers. My job is to make sure that when they hit an IED and are engulfed in flames, they have the best protection possible and the least risk of something (going wrong) that could have been prevented,” said Welling.
A concern among commanders is that servicemembers will down play the problem of wearing wicking materials in combat settings because they think their body armor or uniforms will protect them.
The camouflage utility uniforms are designed to turn to ash and blow away after the material is burned, but the burn hazard is still present, said Welling, who recommends wearing 100% cotton clothing while on missions.
So far, Marines have been responding well to the new regulations.
“The policy is good because it’s designed for safety and is about keeping Marines in the fight,” said Cpl. Jason Lichtefeld, a military policeman with the 1st MLG, who plans to make sure his Marines comply with the new rules.
Even Marines who never venture off their base should be aware of the risks associated with wearing the wicking fabrics.
Recently, there was a case where a Marine’s high performance undershirt started smoking when he was shocked by an electrical current. Fortunately, it didn’t catch on fire or melt, but the potential was there, said Welling.
When working in a low risk environment where exposure to flames or intense heat is minimal the high performance apparel can be an optimal option for staying cool in the Iraq heat.
“We’ve got a great piece of gear, but when you put it in the wrong environment it could cause more problems than its worth,” said Welling.
The directive is straight forward and simple.
“The goal is not to bubble wrap the warrior going outside the gate, the idea is to minimize the (hazards) we have control over,” said Welling.