Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The soldier’s load: A response from an officer in Afghanistan who is a climber

By Lt. Lucas Enloe Best Defense guest columnist I can definitely understand Mr. Woods’ perspective, from a number of levels. Having carried rucks weighing upwards of 60 pounds up mountains, I can certainly say that it sucks. I’ll admit that I haven’t done any rucking in Afghanistan yet, where it would only suck even more. ...

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By Lt. Lucas Enloe

Best Defense guest columnist

I can definitely understand Mr. Woods' perspective, from a number of levels. Having carried rucks weighing upwards of 60 pounds up mountains, I can certainly say that it sucks. I'll admit that I haven't done any rucking in Afghanistan yet, where it would only suck even more. That said, Mr. Woods' argument that applying the philosophy of extreme alpinism would significantly reduce soldier loads is wrong. As an avid alpine mountaineer myself, I can safely say that even the extremest of alpiners would still be forced to carry heavy packs on extended trips. Take, for example, an 8-day trip up and around Mt. Rainier. Even when climbing with some incredibly talented and experienced mountaineers, the average pack weight was about 65 pounds. Food weighs a lot. And that was operating under the convenience of being able to melt snow to get fresh water. Soldiers in Afghanistan don't have that luxury.

By Lt. Lucas Enloe

Best Defense guest columnist

I can definitely understand Mr. Woods’ perspective, from a number of levels. Having carried rucks weighing upwards of 60 pounds up mountains, I can certainly say that it sucks. I’ll admit that I haven’t done any rucking in Afghanistan yet, where it would only suck even more. That said, Mr. Woods’ argument that applying the philosophy of extreme alpinism would significantly reduce soldier loads is wrong. As an avid alpine mountaineer myself, I can safely say that even the extremest of alpiners would still be forced to carry heavy packs on extended trips. Take, for example, an 8-day trip up and around Mt. Rainier. Even when climbing with some incredibly talented and experienced mountaineers, the average pack weight was about 65 pounds. Food weighs a lot. And that was operating under the convenience of being able to melt snow to get fresh water. Soldiers in Afghanistan don’t have that luxury.

Imagine all the food, water, and gear a hiker would need for even a short three-day hike. Now add a weapon, your basic combat load of ammo, radios, and a week’s worth of batteries. And contrary to Mr. Woods’ point, even if I was carrying no extra weight, I’d still need a significant amount of water, you know, because I’m doing combat patrols at 7,000 feet in 95 degree weather. The problem isn’t that soldiers and NCOs are taking more than they need, the problem is that what they need is pretty heavy. As much as I would like to say "Yeah, let’s make our weapons and ammo and armor and water lighter!" I know the ridiculous amount of time and money it would take to do that.

Mr. Woods then argues that somehow the 60 pound ruck is a major cause of difficulties in counterinsurgency operations, and then implies (I think) that we should do without body armor or helmets. I don’t think I need to go into more detail other than to say that I strongly disagree. Unfortunately Mr. Woods’ lack of military experience is the primary reason for a large part of his argument being infeasible.

That’s not to say that all of Mr. Woods’ points are wrong. The Army has, to an extent, recognized the need for lighter gear in Afghanistan (see the introduction of plate carriers, M240Ls, etc…), but I think it can do better. By studying the design of similar gear in the civilian sector, I think we can make the load easier on our soldiers. Take, for example, the shape and design of our rucks. If you compare your standard issue ruck with some large-capacity expedition packs made by companies like Gregory or Arcteryx (or Mystery Ranch, whose packs I’ve seen running around in Afghanistan), and you’ll notice that the Army’s ruck is much rounder, whereas the packs are narrower, but taller. Having carried both I can say with absolute certainty that my civilian pack is far superior to my issued ruck. I think that by studying the design philosophy of civilian mountaineering equipment the Army can continue to improve our gear.

Again, though, any major changes in gear take time and money. Until then, we’ll have to continue to rely on the NCO corps to train our Soldiers, both physically and mentally, to deal with the burden they’ll bear in combat. I definitely welcome any disagreements or other perspectives on this issue.

Lucas Enloe is an Army 1LT currently in Afghanistan. He has years of experience in walking uphill.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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