Tools for the Troops: Useful Field Gear and ‘Ghetto First Aid'
By Philip A. Quigley
When preparing for a prolonged and easily extended overseas deployment, it is best for soldiers and Marines to have the right tools and equipment needed to do the job from the outset.
It is at best difficult, and at worst, damn near impossible to succeed at the mission with the wrong gear. When my Marine Corps unit deployed to the Iraq theater in February 2003, my comrades and I did not know exactly how to prepare ourselves because the last time regular ground forces had been in that particular area was a decade ago. The knowledge of our senior NCOs who had been in the first Gulf War was dated. Times, equipment, and operational tempo (optempo) had changed a great deal as well.
We knew that this was going to be a much different war than theirs had been. Needless to say, upon our arrival in Kuwait we discovered that we were largely unprepared with the equipment we had brought with us. Much of our issue equipment such as our load bearing equipment, tools, survival gear, and tactical gear were in so bad shape. Many of us had been forced to buy commercial off-the-shelf gear, spending an average from $400-$600 to supplement the Corps-issued tools and equipment. This was a sad – but common – state of affairs found across the board as the services prepared for the invasion of Iraq .
Having spent and survived a successful eight-month tour of duty as an enlisted scout infantryman with a Light Armored Reconnaissance unit in Iraq , I can speak with some experience on this problem. I hope that the insights that I and my comrades learned can properly help soon-to-be-deployed combat arms servicemen with useful gear purchase recommendations, saving them from wasteful spending at home and minimizing the blood, sweat, and tears they will shed overseas.
First, in an arid desert environment like Iraq where the temperatures can exceed 120 degrees F easily, the most life-threatening problem is dehydration. Dehydration kills. There is no such thing as having too much water in a desert environment. Water is as good as gold out there. A useful piece of gear is manufactured by CAMELBAK® .
For those who may spend a good amount of time on their feet either at checkpoints, on patrol, or conducting MOUT maneuvers, the most useful CAMELBAK® is without a doubt the M.U.L.E.® . The M.U.L.E.® carries equal the amount of water as the standard issue 3-Liter ThermoBak® , but has many upgrades over it.
The M.U.L.E.® has a comfortable Air Director™ ventilated back panel and the system is complete with an independent suspension harness complete with adjustable shoulder straps, a sternum strap, a fold-away waist belt, and compression straps to keep you gear tight and secure while on the move over rough terrain. The M.U.L.E.® has two zippered compartments (one small and one large) to hold small mission essential gear in the top compartment, and possibly a "Ranger-Roll," first aid kit or a complete sealed MRE meal in the bottom compartment. Also, the bottom compartment has MOLLE attachment points on the outside so you can attach even more gear as the mission dictates. This is a very versatile and functional piece of gear that is also light and could make a good day patrol pack if need be.
For the grunt in the field, adaptability is key. Change is a natural fact of life. You must be able to adapt to your environment in order to survive, or you will likely not. Your equipment must be as nimble and quick to change as you are. Equipment pouches must be easily adaptable to fill other roles when the situation arises. Your equipment must also be as apt to survive rugged use and abuse as you yourself are.
With all of this in mind, but with my scout experience in Iraq , in respect to keeping things spare, light, and versatile as possible, let's go over some good field load bearing equipment.
Slings and Load-Bearing Gear
The next most important thing other than water is your weapon and your ability to have it by your side at all times. The best-made sling to date has to be the Blackhawk® SWIFT Sling . This is an extremely versatile three-point weapon sling. It is made of heavy yet soft webbing and is fully adjustable for many different uses.
The SWIFT Sling can be slung muzzle up, muzzle down, weak side, strong side, behind, below, and just about however you want to fit your situation. Being that it is three-point, your weapon stays along your side while conducting searches or lifting objects or injured comrades, also allowing you to use your weapon one-handedly with ease. The SWIFT Sling also makes carrying your weapon "at the ready" easy while conducting long patrols over urban terrain.
For years, our servicemen have seen in action, and civilians have seen in movies or local TV news, Special Forces types with almost stereotypical tactical vest and/or ammo chest harness rigs. For the average grunt, this was something available only in their dreams because of exuberant costs from the likes of Blackhawk® or Eagle®. But in the post-9/11 era and the ongoing war on terrorism, the private sector market has been flooded with decently priced and serviceable tactical gear for the likes of you and me to buy. After all, necessity is the mother of invention, so for the grunts, your time to be high-speed and low-drag has come!
When selecting a good all-purpose load-bearing rig, you want to keep in mind your operational role and typical duties. This will help you better decide the applications of your rig. Today's servicemen are using the Specialty Defense Systems® (SDS) Outer Tactical Vest (OTV) Individual Body Armor System, commonly referred to as the Interceptor. This is a highly modified and advanced version of the FLAK-jacket worn decades before by servicemen serving in Vietnam and in the campaigns afterwards.
The Interceptor alone has already proven itself as a great defense for the soldier against grenades, anti-personnel mines, mortar and artillery shrapnel, as well as some pistol ammunition. When combined with the Small Arms Protective Inserts (SAPI), the Interceptor is almost impenetrable against even most assault and sniper rifle cartridges. The Interceptor makes a great load bearing platform also because it has MOLLE attachment points. We shall keep this in mind.
So if you need a load-bearing system and protection and still keep it light as possible, here's your solution: Now on the market are many commonly available MOLLE-style magazine and utility pouches made to be compatible with MOLLE and ALICE gear, but built to higher standards than any mil-spec LBE system. Some that I have used and highly recommend include the following.
BMD SPEC-OPS™ M16-X-System™ magazine and cargo utility pouches are an excellent buy. These pouches come in varying sizes from a two-six magazine size pouch. I recommend the six-magazine version. I have said it before and say it again, life is costly and ammunition is cheap. Why shoot something once when three or four rounds do the job better? The great thing with these pouches, unlike mil-spec MOLLE pouches, is that they are made from 1000D Cordura nylon, are double stitched, and all stress points are bar-tack reinforced.
Also there for added retention, and noise-reduction while on night patrols, the M16-X-System™ pouches have Velcro hook & loop closures and release buckles. These pouches are great because they will mount to all MOLLE and ALICE compatible systems, and they are extremely well built.
Moving on with more ammo/utility pouches. By now you may have noticed my conclusion that the mil-spec issue MOLLE gear is all but worthless. Since the civilian sector has made equipment whose quality and effectiveness far succeeds that of the military's, my recommendation is, avail yourself of it. Again, the idea is to make your deployment as easy as possible.
I have come across a range of tactical gear products that are many steps ahead of mil-spec MOLLE gear from this major supplier: MAJOR Surplus & Survival® is a retailer/distributor for law enforcement in California that has a mail-order catalogue for out of state purchasers, and is a dealer for MIL-SPEC PLUS™ Enhanced Tactical Gear. These inexpensive MOLLE-style products are hard to beat for ruggedness, versatility and cost. They are almost exactly like their standard mil-spec cousins but built with more emphasis on the stitch points and materials. Some of these products that I have found well worth the money are these:
The canteen cover is better than the MOLLE-issue one and has better materials. Even if you use a CAMELBAK®, a canteen or two is always great to have also. Remember, water is life in the desert. The utility pouch is also great for holding personal items such as gloves, sunglasses, cleaning rags, small toiletries, foodstuffs or cigarettes. And because it has a zipper opening, your things won't fall out. The medic pouch is also much better than the issue ALICE first aid kit, which is nothing more than a nylon cover and a small plastic box filled with small first aid items. It is as useless as a nipple on your elbow. Do yourself a favor and get something else.
First Aid Gear
Speaking of medical equipment. Here are some commonly found items that can literally save your life in the field:
- Duct Tape
- Tie Down/Compression Straps
- Hand Sanitizer
OK, I know what you're all thinking: How in the hell can these help an infantryman? Let me illustrate some things for you. When you're in the field in a place like Iraq , sometimes you do things that the "normal" person back home wouldn't even dream of. While with my unit deployed throughout Iraq, our salty Navy corpsmen taught us grunts many an interesting thing from what they call "ghetto first aid" (or more politically sensitive) "field-expedient field medicine".
Say you or one of your comrades has a puncture wound or gunshot wound. With your handy "ghetto" first aid kit in your MIL-SPEC+® Medic Pouch, you insert a tampon in the puncture or bullet wound; on contact with the blood, the tampon expands and semi-closes the wound. Then you put the Maxi-Pad over the wound to absorb more blood. You then use the Duct Tape as a weatherproof bandage. Over that, for added protection (God willing, if the wound is on an extremity), you can use the bandana to cover the wound until professional medical attention is available. For small cuts and lacerations, you can apply the hand sanitizer to disinfect and the Super-Glue as a sealant to protect the wound. (That's how "ghetto first aid" works.)
Flashlights and Multi-Tools
Back to the principle that you can't do good work with bad tools. Any servicemen needs to have at least 2 Mini-Mag® flashlights (one with a white lens light for general use and one with a red lens light for tactical night use). I have used many multi-tools. I have used Gerber® and Leatherman® multi-tools. I have broken many of both. Their component tools are made of surgical steel, and while they may hold up tight tolerances, in the field they are still too fragile.
I have since switched over to SOG® multi-tools. The SOG® Pocket PowerPlier is my currently most-used tool, mainly because it has a strong gear-interlocking action that provides increased leverage over any other multi-tool out there. It is made of stainless steel and will not rust and is impervious to sand, grit, crud and blood. Also the individual tools in the multi-tool are thicker and stronger than other brands, so it won't break in the field. The SOG® pliers have a wire-cutter piece on it, which is extremely useful for cutting "flexi-cuffs" or zip-tie cuffs from enemy prisoners of war.
The idea of using a knife in combat is a concept that receives scant attention in training (if you are close enough to use a knife, you're too close). In my mind, if you're close enough to use a pistol you're too close, so using a knife is out of the question. But in a rugged combat environment like Iraq or Afghanistan , a good field knife is still an imperative.
Whether using it to open an MRE pouch, pry open an ammo box or wood ammo crate, bash in a car window, or bust open a weak door, a field knife is a must for the ground-pounding soldier or Marine. But: Rambo-knives need not apply here. Think: practical.
If you need a knife with a blade over 8 inches long, you're showing off. In my experience, I have used two different field knives and would stake my life on their durability. The first is made by the legendary Marine sidearm, KA-BAR®. The one I prescribe to though is a three-fourth-sized version called the Short KA-BAR . It has a rustproof, powder coated 5¼-inch blade and a Kraton-G™ grip instead of the standard leather disk grip, while retaining the metal end-cap and pommel like the original. I carried a half-serrated version for practicality because it can be used for regular cutting work with the straight edge, and cutting rope with the serrated edge. A very good knife.
The other knife I recommend is the Glock® Field Knife. It is currently in use as standard issue to the Austrian Army. It features a 6.5-inch powder-coated straight edge blade with a root-saw along the spine. The grip and knife sheath are both made of the same polycarbonate material as made famous by its Glock® pistol counterparts. This knife is a well made and handy. It has a long, almost triangular shaped blade that thins towards the edge, but widens near the saw. It makes a great pry-tool and delivers good puncturing ability also. With a little GI know-how, the sheath can be attached to MOLLE gear as well.
All of these are the humble suggestions of a former LAR scout who hopes to aid those preparing for service overseas. Having once been in your shoes, and knowing that the junior enlisted serviceman does not make much money in comparison to the value of service you provide to your country, I hope these gear recommendations will help. A grunt's tools and equipment must be as rugged and dependable as he is. These tools and equipment I know through experience will do their part. With proper usage, they should help you do yours.
It is a sad state of affairs when our country's soldiers go off to fight for our interests in foreign campaigns yet we fail to supply them with the best possible equipment, forcing them to purchase them with their own modest earnings.
As a professional soldier, it is your own responsibility to make sure you have the gear to best suit you and your mission. When Uncle Sam won't front the cost, sorry to say, you must. But in the end, such a prudent investment will benefit you.
Finally: Stay sharp, stay strong, stay safe. God bless America and our troops.
©2005 DefenseWatch Contributing Editor Philip A. Quigley Jr. served as an enlisted Marine combat scout during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is pursuing a post-military goal of writing about contemporary defense issues.