Compared to load carrying, camouflage and fire discipline, field hygiene doesn’t seem like a very interesting subject. The truth couldn’t be more different. Staying as clean as possible is vital for combat efficiency; a soldier who doesn’t manage hygiene effectively is a soldier who’s going to get sick pretty soon. A casualty is a casualty, whether it’s caused by an IED or D&V, so professionals take good care to eliminate dirt and germs wherever possible. Obviously nobody expects hospital-level sterility, because soldiering is an inherently dirty business, but there’s a huge difference between a smelly, festering mess and a well-cared for soldier with a light coating of fresh dirt.
Old Cold Warriors were experts at packing wash kit for exercises that could last a month or more; sticks of shaving soap, safety razors that took the issued Wilkinson Sword blades, and other compact, simple gear left more room for extra tubes of toothpaste. By the 1990s, larger rucksacks and shorter periods in the field meant cans of Gillette gel and multi-blade razors were more common. I saw the results of that on Exercise Saif Sarrea 2 in late 2001. Seven weeks in the Omani desert saw a lot of people running out of basic supplies, and having to stock up again at the overpriced EFO shop.
Now things are changing again. Recent operations haven’t involved living out of a pack for weeks on end, but conditions in a FOB aren’t a lot better. It’s vital to carry the gear you need to keep yourself clean with limited water and infrequent resupplies of grooming products. In fact, forget grooming products altogether; a few bars of strong soap and loads of toothpaste is what you need. Soap can be used for shaving as well as washing, so there’s no need for bulky cans of foam or gel – and if the Air Force movers are in one of their risk-averse moods, the cans might get confiscated anyway. Mastering a safety razor is a useful skill again – the blades aren’t an issue item anymore but they’re more compact than Mach 3 heads, and last longer too.
1980s exercises meant weeks washing with half a bath sponge and drying off with a bar towel filched from a local pub, but that’s not really adequate for prolonged ops in a hot climate. Lightweight Pertex towels aren’t ideal either – they don’t really dry you very well. A traditional towel works best but they’re bulky and get smelly in a hurry. The new microfiber ones are nice though – they’re more compact than a normal towel, but work better than Pertex.
If there’s a reliable supply of reasonably clean water, a solar shower is a nice item to pack in your comfort box. Fill it with water and leave it in the sun for a couple of hours, then hang it up and turn on the tap – after a couple of weeks of strip washes it’s a real luxury. They make good emergency water containers too, because they’re basically just giant Camelbaks with a shower head fitted.
Speaking of Camelbaks, these are fantastic hydration systems but after a few weeks of neglect you’ll probably find that whole new life forms have evolved inside and developed quite a complex civilization. This puts you at risk of intestinal upsets, and after accidentally walking downwind of the latrines reserved for diarrhea and vomiting (D&V) cases in Iraq, I’ve become really keen on avoiding that sort of thing. Wash your hydration system out regularly, using dish soap or water with a couple of sterilization tablets dissolved in it. Even better, get yourself a Camelbak cleaning kit. This comes in a handy little pouch and contains sanitizing tablets, a wire brush and pull-through for cleaning the drinking tube, and a sort of foam glove that lets you wipe down the inside of the reservoir.
Staying clean on exercise or operations takes a bit of time, and when you’re wet and tired it’s often tempting just to crawl into your sleeping bag and fester there, but if you neglect personal hygiene, illness isn’t far away. Cleaning yourself should be right behind cleaning your weapon on your list of priorities. Ignore it and you’re letting your unit down.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.