Fort Wainwright: Surviving the Cold

Fort Wainwright Soldiers- Sean Williams profile.jpg

Soldiers snowshoe in winter gear on Fort Wainwright. Winter physical training involves troops trekking through a snowy field on Fort Wainwright. Uniforms involve a system of several layers. Temperatures during winter 2017 reached minus 50 and, according to Col. Sean Williams, new recruits can struggle with the weather. Photo provided by Melvin D. Slater (CIV USARMY IMCOM PACIFIC)

The 2-3 year turnover of soldiers that funnel through the U.S. Army Alaska’s cold weather and high altitude training tend to leave with unique life experiences. Col. Sean Williams, 43, can attest to the extreme lifestyle change soldiers face as they settle into the new environment in The Golden Heart City.

Typical days start around 6 a.m. with morning formation, even when temperatures are as low as minus 50 it may not deter an officer from assembling the troops outdoors.

“It depends on the personality of the Commander and the First Sargent. Some are more of a ‘Hey, you know what? We need to live this as much as we can,'” said Williams, garrison commander of Fort Wainwright. “And others are a little bit more reserved.”

The army uses a seven layer system to keep its volunteers warm from head to toe.

“It starts with a silk layer underwear underneath and all the way up to the suit that looks like a Michelin Man,” said Williams.

The training environment makes it that much more important to recognize the signs and symptoms of cold weather injuries, another aspect of the training required by the base.

The soldiers are challenged by the constant physical training and simulations in subzero temperatures to become accustomed to the new environment. Snow shoeing, cross-country skiing, hitting the shooting range, working with weapons and occasional fieldwork are among the activities the soldiers still do throughout the harsh winter.

Even equipment as common as jeeps have problems with doors freezing shut because they are not built to withstand the freezing temperatures. The military equipment sees much of the same problems throughout the winter. Soldiers engage in short simulations in which they are flown into harsh weather with heavy machinery. Such training is done in Alaskan locations such as Deadhorse as well as in separate Arctic countries, like Norway. Such training expands how soldiers experience cold weather and high altitude places such as Chile’s cast mountain ranges, Norway’s hurricanes and Finland’s extreme cold winds.

Other components of working in the military that are more universal, such as acclimating to the 2015 decision to allow woman to work in previously restricted combat jobs. At Fort Wainwright, according to Williams, the ratio of men to women is fairly evenly split, which he is comfortable with.

“We generally get strong women in the military … The army is not going to change the standards … If a woman can do the same things I am expected to do,” Williams said, “by all means join the team.”

Other changes in the military, such as acceptance of the LGBT soldiers is widely seen as normal by the younger recruits he said.

“A lot of the fear about integrating and having same sex marriage, transgenders and all these things,” Williams said. “The fear a lot of the time is from my generation, the older folks that aren’t use to it and it is something new. For a lot of your generation and the generation behind you, they are growing up with this stuff and living it.”

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